Fingers Crossed

Ian Hunter & The Rant Band

Proper Records, 2016

REVIEW BY: Jason Warburg


Once upon a time, Ian Hunter was the very model of the young British rocker, banging his way through one forgotten band after another until a group called Silence invited him to join, around the same time they changed their name to the more memorable (and well-remembered) Mott The Hoople. Nearly 50 years later, Hunter is the very model—nearly the only model—of the British rocker past 75, in the midst of a late-career renaissance for the ages.

Hunter moved on from the star-crossed but well-loved Mott into a solo career whose early highs—his 1975 self-titled debut and 1979’s terrific You’re Never Alone With A Schizophrenic—lapsed into a spottier mid-section through the ’80s and ’90s. But the once-young lion came roaring back with 2001’s fierce and fantastic Rant, and hasn’t missed a beat since, most recently delivering three of the best albums of his long career in Shrunken Heads (2007), Man Overboard (2009) and When I’m President (2012).

Fingers Crossed continues that notable run with all the brio, wit, and road-worn wisdom his loyal following has come to expect. Opening up with a dirty, chugging riff and an ascending battle cry of “Yeah yeah yeah yeah!” opener “That’s When The Trouble Starts” is a storming rocker that isn’t three lines old before the 77-year-old Hunter swerves from his pleasantly road-worn voice to a spot-on falsetto, as if to prove it’s still there anytime he needs it.

This big-boned barroom anthem wisely doesn’t overstay its welcome before giving way to the brilliant “Dandy,” Hunter’s affectionate tribute to his friend David Bowie, the man who singlehandedly rescued Mott (and Hunter) from obscurity by giving them their biggest and most enduring hit in “All The Young Dudes.” It’s a snappy, sassy tune, of course, full of great lines like “Something’s happening, Mr. Jones / My brother says you’re better than the Beatles or the Stones” and “Dandy – the world was black ‘n’ white / You showed us what it’s like / To live inside a rainbow.” The bridge seems to borrow a continental flavor from Leonard Cohen, a wordless lament, before eventually moving into this final chorus: “Dandy – the keeper of the flame / We won’t see your like again / No, Dandy was a one-off / Dandy – look what you’ve become / I guess I owe you one / So thanks for the memories.” To work, to be neither perfunctory nor maudlin, a tribute like this has to strike just the right tone; this one is perfect in every way.

It feels natural after this heartfelt elegy to transition right into another song about memories. Inspired by a 2014 visit to one of the birthplaces of rock and roll, Sam Phillips’ legendary Sun Studios in Memphis, the suitably foreboding “Ghosts” finds Hunter deep in a dream of rock and roll heaven (and sounding more than ever like his idol Dylan): “I’m standing in a room full of ghosts, turntable spinning around / I’m standing in a room of ghosts, why don’t ya put the needle down.” In the end, the song becomes another fond thank-you to the influences who shaped Hunter’s life and career: “When every light went out on me –  when every star was crossed / You scratched the surface of my soul ‘n’ told me who I was… I’m standin’ in a roomful of ghosts – you showed me what to do / I’m standin’ in a roomful of ghosts – ‘n’ I’m still thanking you.”  my_heart_sings_the_harmony_web_ad_alt_250

Up next, the title track presents the latest model of the serious, soaring, sincere piano ballads that Hunter has mastered over the years, kicked off by this tremendous opening line: “I was pressed into service through no fault of my own / I was dragged from the gutter by nefarious rogues.” The allegory becomes one of looming death (“On the steps of the scaffold”) leading up to a moment of reckoning: “I make my confession with my fingers crossed.” And that’s really the heart of this album’s lyrical concerns: has Hunter’s been a life well spent? As obvious as the answer seems, it’s a question worth asking.

Because he’s Ian Hunter, he follows the most serious and somber, almost weepy moment on this album with a pair of playful, upbeat numbers in the form of “White House”—a fun peek at his apparently quite content domestic life—and “Bow Street Runners,” a rollicking historical tale about Old London vigilantes. The tempo then moves back to the middle for an appropriately slumbering ode to “Morpheus” that Mark Bosch appends with a long, gorgeous guitar solo, channeling the ghost of Hunter’s former foil Mick Ronson for the last few powerful bars.

On the home stretch, “Stranded In Reality” offers an enjoyably cranky rant about modern life (“Stranded in reality – it’s the age of the deluded / Everybody’s got a brain – but the batteries ain’t included”), while the melancholy advice-to-a-friend (or is it himself?) number “You Can’t Live In The Past” rides a slinky rhythm with a hint of reggae. The jaunty autobiographical closer “Long Time” retells the legend of Mott The Hoople one more time: “Be careful what you wish for – dreams can come true / I was used to failure – this was somethin’ new / We tripped the light fandango til’  we ran out of steam / And then one by one we fell off the end of a dream.” In the end, he offers this wise summation of his—and really, anyone’s—life: “You take a chance on destiny – you never know what you’ll find / Fortune and misfortune are forever entwined.”

The songs themselves are magnificent, wise and witty and delivered with the casual, confident panache of a veteran performer, but they could still have faltered if not for the support of one of the finest bands going. The Rant Band, the core of which dates back to Hunter’s 2001 album Rant, is a tight, ferociously good unit in the E Street vein that delivers spot-on support on every tune. Guitarists James Mastro and Mark Bosch, bassist Paul Page, drummer Steve Holley, keyboardist Dennis Dibrizzi (replacing Andy Burton; they both play on much of this album) and co-producer/musical director/guitarist Andy York are uniformly superb, and Hunter deploys his forces like the seasoned field marshal that he is, arranging every song for maximum power and impact.

Fingers Crossed is rather inevitably tinged with nostalgia and a touch of melancholy as Hunter looks back on his life and takes stock of it, but it’s miles from any sort of farewell. It’s simply Hunter doing what he’s always done—turning the material he has at hand into a set of sharp, captivating, emotionally rich songs that take you on a journey. We’re ready for more anytime you are, sir.

Rating: A

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