What a treat, like an early Christmas present -- getting to watch guitarist Charlie Hunter and drummer Scott Amendola going toe-to-toe, just the two of them, at Duende in Oakland. Thursday night, they were having as much fun as two school kids out in the garage, getting a new band together. Only these two kids (well, they're in their 40s) are from the advanced class, romping through the modern history of popular music in the United States and the Caribbean.
On tour with a new CD titled "Not Getting Behind Is the New Getting Ahead," they have local roots. Hunter (now based in New York) grew up in Berkeley, which is where Amendola lives. They've played together off and on for 20 years, since San Francisco's "acid jazz" days -- they were in the band T.J. Kirk -- and have scheduled a cluster of Bay Area shows. Duende's show was the first. It was packed, and a christening for the cool little loft/performance space in this restaurant and bar (which hasn't even officially opened) in the trendy Uptown district.
Hunter and Amendola are old-fashioned improvisers plying the new genre-less waters, channeling influences as seemingly disparate as Blind Blake and Tito Puente. But there's a baseline here: the blues. And there was a unifying aesthetic for much of Thursday's early set: the compact, bruising crunch of Jimi Hendrix's Band of Gypsies, which was a trio. With Hunter churning the bass lines and playing lead guitar -- he does this on his custom-built seven-string instrument -- the concept here is further crystallized.
Facing one another across a distance of about four feet, the two started with Hunter's "Assessing the Assessors, an Assessor's Assessment," from the new CD. Amendola introduced it with a jazzy wash of rumble across his kit, then the two settled into slow blues, built over a Beatles "I Want You" bass line. But it kept pausing midstream; Hunter has stitched what sounds like a half-forgotten '30s pop tune into the middle of his composition. He has a puzzle brain; it all works.
He kept quoting Charles Mingus's "Haitian Fight Song" -- a galloping riff -- over John Lennon's bass line; that worked, too.
In the course of an hour, the two played 11 tunes; these guys know about economy. Swing became hip-hop, which became funk, which became Second Line. On Amendola's "Buffalo Bird Woman," Philly Soul was brushed by Hendrix's "Little Wing." Then the drummer, grinning, launched a rumba beat -- one more of his concentrated grooves -- as Hunter leaned into "Whatever Lola Wants, Lola Gets," from "Damn Yankees." It sounded like the Ventures in Havana.
Spinning new melodies throughout his white-hot and twisty solo, Hunter turned an unexpected corner -- and Amendola hit one of his bullet-rhythm rimshots (Tito Puente!) at the precise instant that Hunter made his turn. What can you say? After two decades, these two are telepathic, into one another's moves.
Hunter played one piece without the drummer: "Blind Arthur," his tribute to Blind Blake, the blues and ragtime guitarist. Hunter also made connections to Willie "The Lion" Smith, the Harlem stride pianist; all that was missing was the fedora and a cigar. This was a very boiled down performance by the guitarist, except for one short stretch when he wound up improvising what seemed like half a dozen melodic lines in counterpoint. That puzzle brain, again.
Toward the end of the set, the guitarist and drummer played a slinky "Jealous Guy," the Lennon tune, then raced through Gershwin's "Liza (All the Clouds'll Roll Away)." With the hometown crowd cheering, they came back for an encore, the spiritual "Just a Closer Walk With Thee."
This was a joyful show, and fun.
Incidentally, Amendola will be booking this appealing new music space at Duende, which is in the old Floral Depot building, an Art Deco landmark on 19th Street between Broadway and Telegraph. The Nels Cline Singers -- a trio led by the Wilco guitarist, with Amendola on drums -- is scheduled for Jan. 23-26. By then, the kitchen should be operating. Foodie alert: Chef Paul Canales, who spent years at Oliveto Restaurant and Café, also in Oakland, is in charge.
HUNTER AND AMENDOLA
Guitarist Charlie Hunter and drummer Scott Amendola perform together through Dec. 17 at the following times and locations: