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Van Hunt; The Chicago Scratch Orchestra
BENT NIGHTS Special to the online edition of Windy City Times
by Vern Hester
2012-04-03

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I have to admit that last week I did not leave the house looking for what I got. The first head-scratcher was soul/funk multi-instrumentalist Van Hunt's gig at Lincoln Hall, where I bumped into Abraham Levitan (of Baby Teeth) and his lovely wife, Lara; Daniel Bryant (the artistic director of Congo Square Theater); and Marty Casey (of the LoveHammers). It's not like you would find this four—all of them major players in Chicago's performance scene—in the same part of town, let alone the same room. But once Hunt got onstage and cooed, "I want to blow your mind..." during his first song, I knew definitely that I was onto a whole new dimension.

Haven't heard of Hunt? Well, that makes sense. He got his start writing with and for Dionne Farris, Rahsaan Patterson and Cree Summer while segueing into production on his own recordings. He was also forced to develop a DIY aesthetic while engineering his own artistic freedom. Capitol Records had the good sense to release Van Hunt (2004) and On the Jungle Floor (2006) but on switching to Blue Note Records, the label abruptly shelved his opus, Popular, regardless of the fact that LA Weekly called it a "left-field stunner." (Popular is available as a digital EP.)

Hunt's solution to that corporate blunder was to start his own label (Godless Hotspot Records) and release What Were You Hoping For? in 2011, and it was just as "different" as everything that came before it. What's amusing is that Hunt is a man who wants it both ways, as if independent homemade artistry can't embrace corporate respectability. While he was forging his own career with himself as his own CEO, he grabbed a Grammy in 2005 (with Joss Stone and John Legend for their vocal performance on "Family Affair" for the Sly Stone tribute album Different Strokes for Different Folks [Sony Records]); had American Idol's Randy Jackson as a manager early on; and covered Iggy Pop's "No Sense of Crime." His brand-new Live at the Troubadour 2011 (Godless Hotspot Records) is the perfect place to get acquainted for all us late arrivals.

For all his credibility, Hunt's sound is just as unexpected and unique as his appearance. As a "soul man" instead of dressing to kill or impress the man looks like he just came out of the tumble and twirl, and he has a cushy, rumpled amiability which gives him a vibe of luxurious comfort. His voice has a lilting featherweight smoothness punctuated by a raspy crack that brings to mind Marvin Tate and Errol Brown of Hot Chocolate, and gives him an edge of vocal unpredictability.

Better still, his production style harks back to Curtis Mayfield's '70s recordings, with dashes of Prince and Frank Zappa spicing things up. However, instead of having an army of musical instruments competing against each other, Hunt slow-stews everything down on his soundboard until it morphs into a thick brew. Listening to this music is the equivalent of a sonic tsunami of warm hollandaise sauce washing over your naked body while getting lightly juiced on wine coolers during a heat wave. It's sexy, sensuous, haunting, exotic and, coupled with Hunt's lyrics, almost unnerving in its complexity.

This explains why you may not have heard or heard of him—this music is so rich, evolved and so subtly seductive that it makes most soul/funk/rock sound positively hyper. With all that compression "Eyes of Pearl," with its stair-stepping bass line, "Dust" with it's airiness and playfulness, and "Seconds of Pleasure" with it's shapeless melody and lurching groove sound simultaneously retro, unique, modern and alien.

With all that art blowing through Lincoln Hall it still didn't stop Hunt from getting goofy or getting off. "That response was inappropriate," he cracked when a singalong failed to take flight. "I've been up here for 30 minutes and that shit was dope!" His adoring crowd did get it together for the heavy-hippy-sludgy funk epic "Hello Goodbye," while "Down Here In Hell," with its relaxed take on comfortable romantic dysfunction, came slathered in guitar shrieks and feedback. Sorry, I can't say that I've gotten over this show yet, and if I had my way I never will, either. Van Hunt is GOD...

A night later I took my second foray into Chicago's DIY scene, something that I accidently discovered two months ago when I attended a rave/concert in a loft dubbed the Ball Hall. Where the previous gig was loaded with scruffy punk rock bands who were all polite, nice and really delightful to hang out with, this was a performance by the Chicago Scratch Orchestra, a free-flowing group of musicians who meet and perform avant-garde works. To say that the Scratch Orchestra and its music are not the kind of sounds you would expect to hear on the lawn at Ravinia while you scarf down chardonnay and brie is putting it mildly. However, it was an adventure.

Rather than rely on written music, this group "played" from an entirely different template. Julia Miller's "Oracle Bones" was based on the musicians watching members of the audience walking past a transparent drawing, playing off the movements, colors and timing. Sarah Ritch's "The Fish and the Bird" was based on a projected image of squiggles, lines and colors, divided by ascending and descending divisions.

I still don't know what to make of the reading of legendary out sonic artist Pauline Oliveros' "Teach Yourself to Fly" while Nomi Epstein's "For Cage99," a group vocal piece based on words and text and expressed through hums and voice noises, left me just as confounded. This said nothing about the music and everything about me and a couple of my friends, who left after a good 10 minutes.

The Chicago Scratch Orchestra's music was far from what I was used to listening to and it shows that there is way more creative work pushing the boundaries of what we would consider art. Sure, it was a new experience and a whole new scene and since it's unlikely that Philip Glass or Oliveros will play in Wicker Park anytime soon my amiable host, Kg Price, and the Chicago Scratch Orchestra are the key to checking out a whole new world. In short, I want to check out more of this...


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