In one of his signature songs, “Once Bitten, Twice Shy,” Ian Hunter exclaims, “You didn’t know what rock’n’roll was!”
Hunter and his five-man Rant Band offered a succinct demonstration of their own expertise in the subject during a no-nonsense, consistently fired-up set Nov. 17 at the Outpost in the Burbs concert series at the First Congregational Church in Montclair.
Hunter, a 78-year-old survivor of the 1970s glam-rock scene (when he led the band Mott the Hoople, before going solo), has kept things fresh with a series of high-quality new albums in this decade. The British performer’s latest, 2016’s Fingers Crossed, includes touching tributes to fallen members of his rock generation such as David Bowie and John Lennon.
Hunter sang with a voice that was a tad scratchy, but showed he has lost none of the attitude or declamatory, storytelling flair that made his music so compelling in the first place. He energetically and enthusiastically alternated between acoustic guitar and piano and even played a bit of harmonica.
The key to the evening’s success was the mighty electric-guitar ensemble playing of Mark Bosch and New Jersey native James Mastro, who lifted the proceedings to high levels of grinding crunch from the opening moments.
Mastro, formerly a member of the 1980s Hoboken band the Bongos and the longtime owner of a Hoboken music store, the Guitar Bar, has been serving as a Hunter sideman for 16 years and has clearly found his niche in that role.
Bosch played most of the lead breaks, bringing an urgent, screechy, sometimes psychedelic, sometimes bluesy flavor. Mastro’s guitar, meanwhile, was the engine that drove the train, as he played most of the songs’ thematic riffs with a comfortable, biting authority.
The overall effect was an uplifting, never-say-die wall of sound that gave the church sanctuary the ambience of a rock music hall like New York’s Beacon Theatre.
Some observers believed this was the loudest concert ever in the Outpost series, which has evolved from its origins 30 years ago as a quiet, coffeehouse-style venue (offering folk music, almost exclusively) to its new incarnation serving up a variety of styles — including, for the first time, no-holds-barred rock’n’roll.
Hunter seemed fully engaged and connected to the audience even though he spoke directly to the crowd just once, helpfully explaining why the band’s main keyboardist came to the front of the stage to adjust Hunter’s electric piano, shortly after a song started. (There was a problem with the arrangement.)
The band hit the stage running, offering “Once Bitten, Twice Shy” as its second song, building a casual, jaunty, piano-based rendition into a full-throttle rocking glam-guitar assault.
The band delivered more in-your-face glam-guitar flavor on 2012’s “When I’m President” and the anthemic rocker “23A Swan Hill.” It played some barrelhouse-keyboard-based, good-timey songs like “Just Another Night” and some slow-cooking blues-flavored ballads such as “The Truth, the Whole Truth and Nuthin’ but the Truth” and “Fingers Crossed.”
Toward the end of the set, Hunter and the band offered some of the show’s most affecting moments. The memorable, catchy 2016 song “Dandy” paid tribute to Hunter’s old friend, Bowie. “Ghosts” remembered Lennon and others, as Hunter referenced “the walrus” and sang, “I’m standing in a roomful of ghosts.”
Hunter’s cover of “Sweet Jane” by another late friend, Lou Reed, was a tour de force, as it built to a fast pace, slowed down and then reached a furious climax.
Hunter saved some old favorites for the encores, turning “All the Way From Memphis” into a piano-based blockbuster that had many on their feet and dancing. Hunter ended with a dramatic rendition of his greatest hit, the Bowie-written “All the Young Dudes,” as opening act Steve Wynn joined the band to sing on the choruses.
Wynn rose to some prominence in the 1980s as the leader of The Dream Syndicate, a moody guitar-rock band in the style of R.E.M. and other alternative groups of that era. Wynn has remained a prolific artist since then, releasing a slew of new material and reuniting with Dream Syndicate in 2012.
In a solo-acoustic set on Friday, Wynn played some hard-strummed, folk-rock versions of songs from throughout this career, including a haunting version of the title song of an early Dream Syndicate album, Days of Wine and Roses.
Wynn introduced a pretty, edgy ballad, “Glide,” from a new Dream Syndicate album and played a rhythmic guitar on an angry, recent song, “We Don’t Talk About It.”
One of Wynn’s more imaginative numbers, “Monument Park,” came from an occasionally performing band called the Baseball Project, which Wynn fronts along with Scott McCaughey, who has played in R.E.M. and has been a member the Young Fresh Fellows and the Minus 5. Noting that McCaughey has been battling serious health problems of late, Wynn played this thoughtful, engaging tune about Bernie Williams, the New York Yankees great of the 1990s and 2000s.