North Carolina soul journeyman ANTHONY HAMILTON began recording in the early 90s, but his early albums were either ignored or unreleased thanks to label snafus. His luck changed with 2003's Comin' From Where I'm From, an understated gem that showed off his Bill Withers-esque voice and set him apart from his peers--Hamilton refused to either indulge in neosoul nostalgia or settle for empty bedroom whispers. The album went platinum, and success seems to have boosted his confidence: for the follow-up, last year's Ain't Nobody Worryin' (So So Def/Zomba), he sings with even greater intensity, and though different producers tend to play most of the instruments, the album feels like a genuine live-band recording. On the love songs he sounds neither cocky nor insincere, and elsewhere he's picked up Curtis Mayfield's mantle of social responsibility: on the title track he addresses poverty's debilitating effects instead of simply blaming it for pathological behavior, and on "Preacher's Daughter" he laments the fate of the title character, whose father is blind to her decline into addiction and prostitution. Hamilton can coolly navigate 70s-style slow jams, but he also nails the Stevie Wonder funk groove of "Sista Big Bones," the lush Philly soul of "Change Your World" (featuring Roots drummer Ahmir Thompson), and the frothy pop reggae of "Everybody."
Dayton-born soul man VAN HUNT also has a rep for avoiding contemporary R & B cliches: when his self-titled debut came out in 2004 he professed his love for the Stooges and promised his next album would have a stronger rock vibe. He's kept his word: his new disc, On the Jungle Floor (Capitol), includes a cover of the Iggy Pop-James Williamson obscurity "No Sense of Crime." But the album's slick production, courtesy of Bill Bottrell (Sheryl Crow, Madonna, Elton John), makes his guitar-heavy soul sound less organic, with a heavy Prince influence, and a few tunes come off like blatant pleas for MOR airplay. Hunt has a knack for expressing emotional ambiguity in his lyrics, and his easy falsetto can transcend even the most overblown arrangements. But he often sounds like he's trying too hard to distinguish himself, which gives the disc a calculated feel. Fortunately he's a terrific live performer, and with luck none of the studio fussbudgetry will make it to the stage.
Hamilton headlines, Heather Headley plays second, and Hunt opens. Hunt also performs at 12:30 AM at HotHouse, 31 E. Balbo, 312-362-9707; tickets are $15. Sat 5/13, 8 PM, Chicago Theatre, 175 N. State, 312-462-6363 or 312-902-1500, $45-$55. All ages.