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Ian Hunter is proof that rock isn’t just for young dudes

Ross Halfin

Ian Hunter will play City Winery on Feb. 10 and 11.

By Ed Symkus Globe Correspondent 

If you look at it from a rock ’n’ roll perspective, Ian Hunter was considered an old man when he joined the band Silence, which would soon change its name to Mott the Hoople. It was mid-1969, and Hunter, already a veteran of numerous, now-forgotten British groups, either singing or playing guitar, piano, or bass, had just turned 29. He became Mott’s pianist/singer/main writer, and the band quickly garnered a reputation for being one the of best live acts around, featuring passionate, grungy rock, accompanied by what critics would call “Dylanesque” vocals. But though they filled concert halls, they didn’t sell many records, and they never saw a big payday. In 1972, Mott the Hoople called it quits, only to have their fortunes turn around when David Bowie, a kind of closet Mott fan, offered them “All the Young Dudes,” and went on to produce the single.

Record sales soared, the band became part of the nascent glam-rock scene, and three years of success followed before they broke up. Hunter set out on a solo career, teaming up for a while with former Bowie guitarist Mick Ronson, and later forming the first edition of what would become his Rant Band.

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Hunter has been known to take years off from both the studio and the road, but he always comes roaring back. Last fall he was finishing up a Rant Band tour promoting their 2016 album “Fingers Crossed,” and was supposed to play at the then-still-unfinished City Winery in Boston. That show has been rescheduled into two dates, Saturday and Sunday. Hunter, who has been living in the States since 1975, spoke by phone from his home in Connecticut. Even though at the age of 78, from a rock ’n’ roll perspective, some would consider him an old man, he’s still a vibrant and compelling performer.

Q. What sort of music were you playing in your earliest performances?

A. Skiffle. Actually, I started out in harmonica bands. I played all kinds of harmonicas, but I also got to play a couple of songs on guitar. When I was 17 or 18 I went to a Butlin’s [holiday camp], where I met two other musicians. We won a talent contest and later on we formed the Apex Skiffle Group.

Q. You’ve been in a lot of bands, from Hurricane Henry and the Shriekers to the Scenery to Charlie Woolfe. How did the audition for Silence come about?

A. Bill Farley, a recording engineer at Regent Sound Studios, rang me up. The band and their manager, Guy Stevens, were looking for a pianist-singer. I could do both, but extremely poorly [Laughs]. Fortunately, I was the only one who could. But they didn’t actually let me join right away. They said something like, “You’ll do until something better comes along.” But they eventually got used to me.

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Q. There are many versions out there of how David Bowie saved the Mott the Hoople. What do you recall of the situation?

A. We were playing in Switzerland, and we’d had enough, so we broke up when we got back to London. Our bass player Pete Watts rang up David, looking for a job. David said, “But you’re with Mott.” Pete said, “No, we split.” David said, “No, you can’t do that.” It turned out he’d been a fan of the band. He’d sent us “Suffragette City” the year before, but we didn’t want to do it. Then, after he spoke with Pete, we went to his publishing company, and I remember David sat on the floor with an acoustic guitar and he played “All the Young Dudes.” Two things came immediately to mind. One was that even though I’d never been a natural singer, I could sing this song. The second was this song is huge, it’s enormous. And he just gave it to us.

Q. Over the course of your career, you’ve been known to disappear for a while, especially in the late ’80s and early ’90s. What’s gotten you to stop, and what’s gotten you to start again?

A. You know, you tour too much and it gets boring. That’s why I never wanted to do it all the time. It’s not a clever idea to do it the way I do it, and I wouldn’t recommend it to anybody else. But it’s the way I like to do it. You start again because when you’re not doing it, you’re bored out of your mind and you hate yourself [Laughs].

Q. Is it tough to start again?

A. Oh yeah. When you finish the album, you go out touring with it, that’s all great. At end of that, you have a good rest, and that’s great, too. But then it’s like, what am I going to do now? And you start the whole process all over again, with nothing.

Q. Is that when you start writing songs?

A. You try, but often, you haven’t written a song for a couple of years. I don’t write while I tour, so that muscle is dead, and you’re going to write some crap for quite some time and get frustrated before anything emerges that remotely resembles a song.

Q. You’re out touring at the age of 78. How do you keep your voice and body in shape?

A. Shape-wise, you’ve just gotta keep moving or you seize up. As far as the vocals, I think because I didn’t go out on the road as much as people who do it year in, year out, my voice has lasted longer. But the voice is a muscle. If I have a couple of gigs coming up, I start getting the muscle hardened about 10 days before.

Q. I assume you’ll be playing a lot of material from “Fingers Crossed” at the upcoming shows. Do you also go deep into your catalog?

A. Sometimes you play the newer songs, sometimes you play the hits, and sometimes you don’t. The band’s been together in this capacity for six years, so they know a few songs from every period.

Ian Hunter & the Rant Band

At City Winery, Boston, Feb. 10 at 8 p.m., Feb. 11 at 7 p.m. Tickets $45-$65, 617-933-8047, www.citywinery.com/boston


Ed Symkus can be reached at esymkus@rcn.com.