NIAGARA FALLS – Kelley Hunt is one heck of a performer. Her voice can shift into the stratosphere and then stop on the proverbial dime, thereby displaying a heady mix of craft and showmanship. Syllables are stretched across the scale, roaming back and forth among the notes, turning simple words into an emotional vehicle for pain and pleasure.
Hunt’s piano playing is solid, complimenting her singing with high-powered boogie-woogie strains one minute and rolling gospel-inspired chords the next. Then, there’s her band, a tight (but not constricted) group of professionals that understood their roles and played them well. All of this combined to ensure that the Bear’s Den, an intimate Seneca Niagara Casino venue with great sight lines, was filled with fans when Hunt and crew showed up there Saturday night.
The evening was dedicated to Jim Santella, the Buffalo Broadcasting Hall of Fame member and former blues host on WBFO, but other dedications cropped up during the evening, as well. There was one for past and present members of the armed forces that led to Hunt unleashing a powerful take on Bob Dylan’s “Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door,” another remembrance (“These Are the Days”) for Ann Rabson, the co-leader of Saffire, who died earlier that week, and “I Miss You,” from her self-titled debut album, which was dedicated to Miles Joseph, her former guitarist who died on Christmas.
Among these emotional tributes were tunes depicting all manner of emotions, all well-paced and impressively delivered. Most of the material played came from “Gravity Loves You” and “Mercy,” her last couple releases, but she also dug into titles from prior releases.
Songs like “Too Much History,” “Long Way Home,” “The Land of Milk and Honey” and the gospel-inflected “You Got To Be the Vessel” showed just how talented she is as a songwriter, a quality that it can be easy to overlook given the skills she has as a performer. Hunt also unleashed a song (“Sympathize”?) that was on the short list for inclusion on the new album (her sixth) that she was working on.
Most of the instrumental solos were handled by Hunt and guitarist John Rhodes, but organist David Dupart got his chance almost an hour into the set, when he and the band leader worked out a tricky exchange of instruments that found both musicians working away on one instrument before slipping seamlessly over to the other one.
Bassist Kenny Ames and drummer Bryan Head worked together well, providing a platform for everyone else to jump off of.
All in all, it was a very good show, one that highlighted just why Hunt’s fan base keeps growing. Plainly speaking, she works hard and delivers the goods.