Robert Hunter is on the road again.
And like the Grateful Dead — the band for whom Hunter wrote lyrics for almost 30 years — he is capable of summoning the highest highs and the lowest lows within the course of a single set.
Hunter stopped by Miller Symphony Hall, a quaint old joint in downtown Allentown, tonight for the second of an eight-show East Coast run.
I’d guesstimate the room was half full, maybe a touch over — and it’s not a big room. I was one of about 15 people in the balcony, which enabled me to grab a front-row seat with plenty of room to myself.
It would have been nice to see a couple more people show up for an honest-to-goodness legend. Hunter was a core contributor to the Dead’s legendary trip, as much as any of the band members, and he’s also co-written songs with the likes of Bob Dylan.
But on the other hand, there’s a reason Hunter doesn’t draw big crowds: He’s simply not a great performer, and probably not even a good one.
His voice pleasantly surprised me. It’s not instantly identifiable, but is more than strong enough to do justice to his material. Hunter’s voice at age 72 is miles ahead of Dylan’s at the same age — and also miles ahead of Jerry Garcia’s voice at age 50.
On the other hand, Hunter’s guitar playing is all over the map.
His right-hand fingerpicking rhythms can be erratic; his left-hand chording can be imprecise; and every trip out of first position is an adventure. Simply put, the guy doesn’t have consistent enough chops to support a one-man-with-guitar show.
And when his deficiencies in playing skill meet apparent deficiencies in musical knowledge, the results are as cringeworthy as the worst of the Dead.
I will always take some degree of pleasure in knowing I saw Hunter play “Stella Blue,” the beautiful country-tinged ballad from the Wake of the Flood album. It’s one of my favorite Dead songs (one of Hunter’s favorites, too, he says), and one I never got to see the Dead perform.
Unfortunately, Hunter doesn’t know the chords. We’re not talking about an occasional mistake: We’re talking full-on what-comes-next unfamiliarity. The result made me squirm; people would cheer in polite encouragement when one of Hunter’s vague, shambling instrumental transitions resolved on the correct chord.
(I spotted at least four tapers in the crowd; if their recordings make their way online, I may post “Stella Blue” here, just to defend myself against anyone who thinks I am being too harsh.)
While “Stella Blue” was bittersweet at best, Hunter’s performances of a crop of 1969-70 songs shone.
“Candyman,” “New Speedway Boogie,” “Friend of the Devil,” “Ripple” and “Brokedown Palace” all featured Hunter in strong, spirited voice, with steadier instrumental backing. It was a pleasure to see all five songs done well by one of their creators, and a reminder that the strength of the best Hunter-Garcia material will outlast Hunter, Garcia, and probably everyone else in the room.
“Box of Rain” and “Brown-Eyed Women,” also written in the 1969-70 time period, were perhaps not quite as well-performed as the others, but still warming and welcome.
And the Western outlaw saga “Jack Straw” featured a charming moment when Hunter drew a blank on the verse that begins “Leaving Texas / Fourth day of July.”
He looked around and asked, “Anyone out there remember the next verse?” … whereupon everyone in the room sang that verse, and the rest of the song, along with him.
Hunter’s music had probably provided uplift to everyone in the crowd at some point or another; and when he needed a hand, they were there to help him in return. When I think back on this show in five or 10 years, that’s probably the moment I’ll remember best.
If you want to see Robert Hunter live, he’s got six more East Coast shows scheduled between now and Oct. 10. I would not expect them, based on my experience, to be transcendent.
But the best of Hunter’s performances suggest that he still has the capacity to bring some great songs to life. If you happen to like those songs, it’s worth taking the chance.