Five quick thoughts on Peter and the Wolf's show Sunday at the Garden Theater:
(1) The setting: Former vaudeville theater/movie house/flophouse/strip club/Christian worship center, now back to hosting music/comedy/burlesque bonanzas and the like, apparently undergoing renovations and bereft of warmth save for a tiny space heater on stage and the huddle of humanity gathered up in front. Peter and the Wolf usually performs in, like, cemeteries, but even Red Hunter seemed taken aback by the chill. We might as well have been at the Brite Winter Festival.
(2) Hunter, the Austin singer-songwriter who made a far-rippling puddle splash with his Johnson & Johnston-inspired 2006 opus Lightness and has been spinning out eccentric projects ever since, was understated but transfixing. His comments were uniformly sardonic, but his demeanor was always kind. He did not play the part of the pretentious jerk nor the overly enthusiastic DIY zealot. There was no artifice, just a dude magnetically shambling his way through sparse acoustic songs with an assist from his Ohio-based buddy Zoe.
(3) That said, this became an immersive experience every time Hunter shifted from banter mode to music mode. His songs are almost comically simple, as basic as intials carved into a tree but just as loaded. It's as if he shaped the raw materials just enough to leave his imprint and not one iota more. That's the mark of the greatest artists, assembling the most common resources into something strikingly individual and unmistakably powerful. (Plus, as openers Saintseneca know well, a couple foot stomps go a long way when you're playing without drums.)
(4) The lyrics were a big part of the appeal, and as I'm exploring some of the songs again today, I see he added or ad-libbed some of the best parts. I'm curious about whether these songs evolve over the years or whether he was feeling particularly angsty and inspired on this Oscar night. Hunter's songs tackled a wide swath of subjects: FEMA temporary cities, the drudgery and romance of life at sea, the ravings of drunken friends, the inevitable boomerang of long-lost love, seeing the world instead of having a dumb baby who only knows what it sees on TV. He also had a song called "Scarlet and Grey" that has nothing to do with the local university's athletic program. Most affecting was a modified version of "Fireflies," Hunter's ode to his dead brother, his grief punctuated by some seriously shocking language that absolutely did its job. (Afterwards: "Sorry for calling my dead brother a fat dead f-g.")
(5) You want to know what a gifted entertainer Hunter is? He even managed to read an excerpt from his novel, "The Ivori Palms," in the middle of his set without sinking the entire performance into a quicksand of preciousness. The reading was preceded by some choice monologue: "I wrote a novel. I've sold 12 copies. I hope to quadruple that total in my lifetime." As for the material, an anecdote about a naked man in an ice cream shop as told by a few seventh graders, it was engaging and breezy enough that I didn't mind the interlude. As with the rest of Hunter's show, he knew exactly how far to push before leaving well enough alone.