Tin sandwich: Mark Hummel's all-stars come to town Jan. 13.
By Greg Cahill
Fifteen years ago, harmonica whiz Mark Hummel went from powerhouse blues blower to premier blues impresario. Today, his annual Blues Harmonica Blowout series plays to sell-out crowds while presenting a steady stream of deep blues. "It seems that people really want to see harmonica players in an environment that provides a buffet of blues harmonica, where you can see a lot of different players and compare styles," says Hummel, 50, during a phone interview from his Berkeley home. "With so many great players in the lineup, you never get tired of anybody because they're not onstage that long. And having players of this caliber together brings out the best in the other players. Everyone rises to the occasion. It's a very exciting event in that sense."
The current West Coast tour finds Hummel and company playing nine concerts in 10 days with a Jan. 13 stopover at the Last Day Saloon in Santa Rosa. The lineup includes blues-harp great Billy Boy Arnold, a Chicago native who got his first harmonica lesson from John Lee "Sonny Boy" Williamson just days before Sonny Boy's 1948 murder; longtime Muddy Waters Band alum Paul Oscher on both harp and guitar; and the husband-and-wife harp-and-piano blues duo of Rod and Honey Piazza. The ace back-up band sports guest guitarist Rusty Zinn with the Blues Survivors (Bob Welsh, guitar and keyboards; Steve Wolf, bass; and Marty Dodson, drums).
Harmonica heavyweights Kim Wilson of the Fabulous T-Birds and Rick Estrin of Little Charlie and the Nightcats will be on hand for the first leg of the tour (including three nights at Yoshi's), but will be sailing off on a blues cruise prior to the Last Day Saloon gig.
With that kind of power, it's little wonder Hummel's blowouts are catching on. "I'm doing more and more of these all over the country," he says. "In September, I got off the road from a Midwest and East Coast tour with Magic Dick [of the J. Geils Band], Lee Oskar [of War] and Jerry Portnoy [another Muddy Waters alum]. And about three weeks ago we finished a Northwest tour with [California blues harpist] James Harman and Lee Oskar. In March, I'll tour the East Coast with Kim Wilson and Charlie Musselwhite."
How did Hummel go from red-hot harpist to cool blues promoter?
"Sort of not by choice," he says. "I've always tried to come up with ideas to keep the band working as much as possible. But the blowout shows are a combination of hard work on my part and walking into a market that I never expected to be as successful as it's been."
The blues bug bit while Hummel was still a Southern California high school student. It was Musselwhite, a Memphis native and Sonoma County transplant, and James Cotton, who had replaced "Little Walter" Jacobs as Muddy Waters' main harp man in the 1950s, who provided the epiphany. "They were the first two guys I saw play live blues harmonica, when I was like 14," recalls Hummel. "That was at the Ash Grove nightclub in Los Angeles in 1971."
Hummel later honed his chops listening to such blues-inflected '60s and '70s rock bands as the Jimi Hendrix Experience and Cream, but it was the Chicago-style blues harmonica of Cotton, Walter "Shakey" Horton, Little Walter and Sonny Boy Williamson that really caught his ear. After graduation, Hummel traveled around the country soaking up the regional sounds of New Orleans, Chicago and Memphis. In 1980, he formed the Blues Survivors, playing at the Chicago and San Francisco Blues Festivals. He has recorded a series of critically acclaimed albums, including a three-volume Blues Harp Meltdown series that spotlights many of the same greats with whom he has shared the stage.
Indeed, it is those superstar sessions that have fueled Hummel's passion for the blues. "I remember doing a gig 20 years ago with [blues guitarist, singer and songwriter] Lowell Fulson," he says. "The first three nights were duds because there was just no audience, but on the fourth night, people came out of the woodwork. It was like a Twilight Zone episode--everyone onstage dropped about 30 years in age and looked like they had all returned to their youth.
"It's just really thrilling when these guys hit their stride, that's all I can tell ya."
Mark Hummel's Blues Harmonica Blowout appears Saturday, Jan. 13, at the Last Day Saloon. 120 Fifth St., Santa Rosa. 8pm. $25. 707.545.2343.