For the 23rd year, veteran blues singer and harmonica player Mark Hummel has assembled his Blues Harmonica Blowout. The massive show brings together a veritable who’s who of blues harp players, including John Mayall of Bluesbreakers fame, to blow up a single stage.
For the first time, Hummel is bringing it to the Tower Theatre in Bend on Saturday. Unfortunately for those without tickets, the show has sold out.
Along with the music skills he possesses, Hummel can tell an origin story.
“I sort of stole the idea from a guy who used to do something called The Battle of the Harmonicas,” said Hummel, of the Bay Area.
The other guy was putting on his harmonica battles in San Francisco, while Hummel’s took place in Berkeley at a different time of year.
“That’s where I got the concept,” he added. Then the other harmonica battles stopped.
“I kept doing mine … but it’s turned into something very different in the sense that it’s a traveling roadshow now,” Hummel said. This year’s roadshow features Hummel, John Mayall, Rick Estrin, James Hartman and Little Charlie Baty (Oregon’s own Curtis Salgado, no stranger to Bend, was on the tour earlier but won’t be on hand for the Tower date, Hummel said).
Hummel’s awesomely named band, The Blues Survivors, which he formed in 1980, backs each of the players.
“What we do is it’s really kind of … a harmonica buffet,” Hummel said, laughing.
“It’s a sampling of each of the guys that are performers on it. We each do, like, 30 minutes, and then we take a break. We do two 60-minute sets, so two guys per set, and then at the end we all play together,” Hummel explained.
For the past few years, the Blowouts have been tributes to various harmonica/blues legends.
The first was a tribute to Muddy Waters, mainly because “I was putting (on) the show with a bunch of guys who used to play with him,” including James Cotton and Mojo Buford.
“I’ve always tried to change these things up,” Hummel said. “They’re never the same exact program year to year. It’s always a different combination of players. The theme idea just sort of evolved … starting with the Muddy one.”
This year’s show is a tribute to the late, great Sonny Boy Williamson.
Hummel’s career in blues predates the Blowouts, of course. He was drawn to the blues harp in high school.
“All the guys I knew were really good guitar players. Everyone kind of goofed around with the harmonica but didn’t take it real seriously,” Hummel said.
However, one older, proficient harmonica player gave him some lessons. “That’s what got the ball rolling. I think I was about 14,” he said.
Hummel devoted much of his free time to practicing, a discipline that would include careful study of blues recordings, including those of Sonny Boy Williamson.
“Sonny Boy Williamson … played rhythmically, but he played rhythmically over a band,” Hummel said. His talents could also stand on their own. “He was one of the most amazing harmonica players from the ’50s that really could play solo pieces without a band and turn them into landmarks.”
Today, Hummel’s own list of accomplishments and albums is extensive. In 2012, he wrote a memoir, ”Big Road Blues,” and he was nominated for a Grammy this year for the record “Remembering Little Walter.”
“The Grammys are a big deal,” he said. “I was really excited by the way the album came out, so to have other people feel the same way is pretty cool.”
Another album is due to drop in March. Baty, who plays the Tower with Hummel Saturday, will also appear on the record, Hummel said.
And like himself, Hummel said, his tourmates Estrin and Hartman were also heavily influenced by the music of Williamson. “Both these guys are larger than life characters.”
And the legendary Mayall — whose Bluesbreakers had future members of Cream, Rolling Stones and Fleetwood Mac on its rotating roster — actually learned to play harmonica from Sonny Boy Williamson, Hummel said. Make that Sonny Boy Williamson II.
Interestingly, just as Hummel boosted what eventually became Blues Harmonica Blowout, Sonny Boy Williamson lifted his name from another bluesman. The Sonny Boy Williamson the show is a tribute to was originally known as Rice Miller, at least until he borrowed the stage name of another bluesman, who died in the 1940s.
“Sonny Boy I was a guy named John Lee Williamson. He was from Jackson, Tennessee. Apparently, the two guys knew each other,” Hummel explained. “They became friends.”
When John Lee Williamson moved to Chicago in the 1940s, Rice Miller adopted the Sonny Boy Williamson moniker for his own use in the Mississippi Delta region.
“He figured he could get away with calling himself Sonny Boy Williamson. At the time, there was no television, there was no print media to speak of for black artists, so nobody was any the wiser that he was an impostor,” Hummel said.
After the original Sonny Boy was murdered, “Sonny Boy II became the ‘Original Sonny Boy Williamson,’ as he called himself,” Hummel said. “He enjoyed muddying the waters on that stuff.”
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