Perhaps the first thing you notice is the voice. Hunter Hamilton, the young St. Louis-based guitarist, singer and songwriter, has a charmingly squeezed vocal timbre, present in both his speaking and singing voices, that creates a mirthful tenor, like a mix of Nick Drake, Sonny Bono and helium.
Or perhaps what strikes you is Hunter's lean, mod-folkie good looks — the tousled Dylan hair, the friendly brown eyes, the vests and paisley shirts and Beatle boots. Or, if you catch the Hamilton Band around town, you might first be taken with Hunter's fluid, expressive guitar playing, which he can apply to a wide range of styles, from jam-band boogie to classic-rawk scorch to country-folk twang.
And before long, you will no doubt notice that there is another one of him. Behind Hunter on the drums or hanging around him at the bar is his brother, Alex, who is three years younger, and the two could easily pass as twins. "We used to use that when we needed to get Al into bars," Hunter says with a laugh, a reference to the fact that the brothers have been performing in clubs before either of them could enter legally. And, no, Alex Hamilton is not named after the founding father, and the band doesn't play music from Lin-Manuel Miranda's Hamilton, although Hunter says, with a laugh, that they get those questions often.
The Hamiltons are still in their early 20s but have already established themselves as one of St. Louis's best bands, currently holding down a residency at 1860 Saloon in Soulard where they play four hours every Friday night, growing a loyal following by specializing in classic rock, blues standards, psychedelia, soul covers, Grateful Dead classics and their own originals.
Hunter is an outrageously affable guy, and as he talks on the phone from his Benton Park apartment, he opens up about his day. "Today I was clearing out some vines for my landlord," he says. "He has these banana trees. He was, like, 'It's gonna be easy. Just cut 'em down.' I didn't realize how much water they retained, so I got soaked in banana-tree juice!" We spend the first part of our conversation discussing whether banana-tree juice smells like bananas. (No, he says.)
If you hung around Venice Cafe in the days just before the pandemic, you would likely have seen Hunter there by himself, new to St. Louis, waiting for his chance to play during open mic nights. Once on stage, he probably broke out Dylan and Donovan covers, and with the kid's Greenwich Village throwback looks and vocal delivery, he looked and sounded like he was auditioning for a biopic of one of those legends.
Like Dylan, Hunter is a rambler who moved far from home to start performing as a troubadour. Born in Norman, Oklahoma, Hunter was raised in Woody Guthrie country by his mom, a native Okie, and his dad, a classical pianist who grew up in Kennett, Missouri, home of newly inducted Rock & Roll Hall of Famer Sheryl Crow. (In fact, Crow gave Hunter's father piano lessons when he was a kid.)
Hunter never took to his dad's overtures to learn classical piano, instead picking up a guitar at age 10. When the family relocated to Boulder, Colorado, in time for Hunter to attend high school, the isolation of starting over without friends led to hours alone with his guitar. Landing a job at a Boulder record store further expanded Hunter's musical horizons. "My boss, man, he would send me home with a handful of records every few days to listen to. It just really turned me on to jazz and blues and rock."
Hunter has always been retrominded when it comes to music. When he discovered Jimi Hendrix's Are You Experienced? LP, it opened up a new world of sounds he says he's been chasing ever since. "I really didn't care for any contemporary music," he says of his high school years. "After I found Hendrix and those guys, that's all I had a taste for. Early Bob Dylan was huge in terms of songwriting. John Coltrane really expanded my mind in terms of improvisation. And then the Grateful Dead."
Colorado was fertile territory for jamminess and organic musical exploration, and Hunter played guitar in church, in pop-punk bands in school and with a Peruvian flamenco guitar mentor in Boulder, occasionally visiting nearby newgrass enclave Nederland to soak up the scene. "You got the real hippies up there," he says. "When I first started driving, I used to drive around up there, and some of those locals act like they haven't seen someone in 20 years."
By the time Hunter was a senior in high school, little brother Alex, an ace on the drums, was ready to join the band. "Al is one of those cats that since he was able to walk he was playing," Hunter says. "He just has music in his veins." First known as the Lapses, then as the Hunter Hamilton Band, the brothers started to play around Boulder as underagers, eventually using their dad's family connections to land a gig 900 miles away in St. Louis at the now-closed Way Out Club in the summer of 2018. How old was Hunter at the time? "Freaking 19, man," he says.
While visiting St. Louis with his aunt and uncle, who was a founder of Heavy Riff Brewing, Hunter had something of an epiphany, feeling like the St. Louis music scene was calling him and that he belonged here.
"Kerouac was a big influence," Hunter says, kindling a wanderlust feeling. "I just decided, fuck it, I'm going to give it a go."
By the end of 2018, he had made the move by himself. That's when you would have seen him hanging around Venice Cafe a few nights a week, hoping for a chance to sing a few songs. He would work in the kitchen at Heavy Riff, play open mics after his shifts and then join all-night jams at other musician's houses, picking until dawn. The other musicians proved welcoming: "I pretty much had a family right away."
And biological family soon followed. Even though Alex was still in high school back in Boulder, he couldn't let Hunter have all the fun. "Al said, 'Well, fuck it, man, if you're coming down [to St. Louis], I'm coming down as well.'" The boys' aunt in St. Louis, a teacher, helped Alex finish his GED, and within no time the Hamilton Band was playing regular spots at Venice Cafe on Fridays and Saturdays.
Working quickly, the Hamiltons established themselves as a band that can jam with anyone, play crowd-pleasing covers all night and write terrific original material. Hunter takes the lead on the songwriting, and has a mantra that he says he borrowed from Tom Petty: "Don't bore us; get to the chorus." "I'm a huge fan of early rock & roll," Hunter says. "I love the early Beatles, Elvis Presley, Jerry Lee Lewis, all those guys. That's really the kind of song I want the Hamilton Band to bring to the world of music."
So the Hamilton Band channels classic rock with golden folk accents and a jam-band twist, all elevated by the brothers' vocal harmonies. "[Singing harmonies] is what we've been doing forever," he says. "We're inspired by the Everly Brothers, the Beatles. That's what we put the most work into for sure."
Now rounded out by Ryan Torpea on keys and Adamm Saint Clair on bass, the Hamilton Band's Friday nights at 1860 are four-hour dance parties heavy on the covers, but the band slips in originals to taste-test in front of audiences. "We won't announce that it's our song until after we play it to see if people are still dancing," Hunter says. The band now has enough songs to be able to play dedicated shows of originals, too, something they hope to do more of next year.
Some of those songs have been released as singles and EPs, including live recordings of the Everlys-esque "If I Wrote You a Song" and the early Dylan ringer "Winds of Change" on 2021's City of Saints EP. "Chains of Blues" and "Flowers in Her Hair" emphasize the Hamiltons' knack for British New Wave arrangements, Beatles melodies, luscious harmonies and guitar-jam readiness.
Now the band is set to release a new three-song EP in January, recorded at Kalinga Studios in Maplewood. The new songs represent the Hamiltons' most satisfying combination of their influences yet — celestial Dead-like Americana, loose Rolling Thunder-style folk rock and sideswiping guitar solos. "We focused on great melodies," Hunter says of the new songs. "And you can tell that we've been playing together so much. Everything just fell into place."
Fresh off a Colorado run where they played a festival in Boulder — the Hamiltons' parents still live there — and a showcase in Breckenridge, the band looks forward to more touring in 2024 when the new record comes out.
Until then, the Hamilton Band will remain a local fixture, playing an average of four nights a week in St. Louis. "Yeah, man!" Hunter says with typical free-spirit optimism. "We're really starting to get something good going on."
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