Big Room blowout
Masters of blues harmonica deliver inspirational sets at Sierra Nevada
Who would have thought there were so many harp hounds in Chico? The Sierra Nevada Big Room was packed for the Blues Harmonica Blowout II.
This is the second time around for the extravaganza, and who better to showcase blues harp virtuosity than Mark Hummel and his Blues Survivors. Hummel is widely known as a strong player in the L.A.- and Oakland-based blues scenes. And he is also known for searching out and incorporating other solid blues harpists into his review to introduce them audiences that might not be exposed to them otherwise. So Chico was fortunate to hear West Coast blues man Johnny Dyer and Austin’s own Gary Primich.
First up was Hummel himself with “They Don’t Want Me to Rock No More.” Despite the title, there was a lot of hard blowing, playing it loud and trying hard to get it across. Backing him, the Blues Survivors, a solid little outfit of bass, guitar, and drums, propelled the groove. A master of technique who obviously loves what he’s doing, Hummel was swinging up front in a white straw hat and orange sunglasses. He succeeded in dazzling the crowd straightaway and lured them all out to the big wooden dance floor.
Hummel sang and played through a variety of styles, sometimes leaning hard toward jump blues but easing back into blues with a swing edge. There were touches of jazz riffs and even rockabilly mixed through straight blues, and Hummel was pulling big, fat octaves on the high end of the harp, even wah-wah, but the riffs, nibbles, and other tricks were never out of context.
He’s a living encyclopedia of harp, and he drew deep from a constant supply of bits when he needed them for improvising. He pulled out the show trick early, tongue-blocking stuff with one high note held through many measures, and the dance floor erupted in applause and cheers.
Johnny Dyer was next out, and he struck me as genuine blues. An easy-going and mellow singer, engaging and friendly as a stylist and a good harmonica player to boot, Dyer breathes the real deal. His introductory banter to a song said it all: “Kind of like Jimmy Reed, you believe every word I say.”
Dyer’s blues comes straight from his birthplace on Mississippi’s Stovall plantation (where Muddy Waters also came from). He started playing as a 7-year-old, on a harmonica he found on the ground. But instead of Chicago, Dyer’s blues arrived via L.A.'s urban edge. He plays harp soft and nice. He’s also one of the few who can sing “Hoochie Coochie Man” without a bit of pretense. Johnny Dyer sings the hell out of a song, but the backing combo’s bright loud style stayed the same, and it nearly drowned his subtlety and nuance during his share of the set.
A little bird told me Gary Primich was feeling under the weather that night. He played through it anyway, but the back of his shirt was drenched with sweat not halfway through his first song. He’s got a great tone when playing, easygoing, warm and not overamped. He’s been voted Austin’s best blues harmonica player five times for a reason. When he’s not touring, he plays every Sunday that he’s home in Austin at Jo’s Hot Coffee.
By the second set, Hummel and the Blues Survivors relaxed a bit. The drummer would occasionally soften things by keeping rhythm on just his sticks when the group moved into jazzier moments. The English guitarist rolled back the cuffs on his white shirt before coaxing more complicated runs from his Les Paul, and he might have eventually even loosened his narrow tie.
The surprise of the evening was a straight blues-rock. Hummel showed his early blues-rock roots with his original, “Stockholm Train Station.” While there were no surprises (the solos traded back and forth in a predictable pattern), the song was quite good and sounded exactly like it should.
During this segment of the show, a fellow sitting next to me was unable to restrain himself any longer. He pulled a harmonica of his pocket and began improvising. I figure if a blues group inspires even one more person to play the blues well, then it’s done its job.