Mark Hummel and his band of harp pros pay tribute to Sonny Boy II
The indefatigable Bay Area harmonicist Mark Hummel put together yet another touring package of fellow harp players to pay tribute to another outstanding harmonicist. This year, the spotlight in the Sierra Nevada Brewing Co.’s Big Room on Tuesday, Jan. 7, was on one of the most unusual blues harpists of all—Aleck “Rice” Miller, aka Sonny Boy Williamson. However, because another harmonica-playing Williamson (the much younger John Lee) preceded him on the public stage, Miller would forever be known as Sonny Boy Williamson II. Just how old he was when he died in 1965 is anybody’s guess, as the Mississippi-born bluesman gave various birth dates in the 1890s, and as Hummel announced at the show, 1912 is also a possibility. What is not in dispute was his genius at playing and the almost surrealistic imagery of his songs.
For this tribute, Hummel featured fellow harp players Rick Estrin, Curtis Salgado and famed bluesman John Mayall, the 80-year-old founder of the Bluesbreakers. As the focus was on Sonny Boy, I asked Hummel how each man got to pick which songs he wanted to play. He answered (via email the day after the show), “Mayall got first dibs on what he wanted and we drew straws from there.”
After four videos featuring Williamson were shown to a marvelously inattentive full house, Hummel and his band, The Blues Survivors (guitarists Bob Welch and guest Little Charlie Baty, bassist RW Grigsby, and drummer June Core) began with “Bring It On Home”—a Williamson song that became a huge hit for Led Zeppelin—and followed it with “Trying to Get Back on My Feet,” a 1963 number with a typically stunning solo (one of many) by Little Charlie, who teamed up with Welch for some nifty unison riffing. Hummel introduced it by saying to the audience, “I like it when you dance,” and dance they did—the floor was pretty much full all night.
After Estrin gave some props to Hummel for putting this tour together, he explored the lower depths of his instrument on “One Way Out” (“Lord, I just can’t go out the door”), a Williamson classic about an adulterer about to get caught. Estrin’s the only musician I’ve seen who can play the harp by putting it into his mouth and playing it hands-free (a sensational Williamson trick as well), which caused a huge roar from the audience when he did it on his own Sonny Boy-influenced song, “You Can’t Come Back.”
I also emailed Estrin before the show and asked what appealed to him about Williamson’s music and he said “his delivery of the song made me feel like he was just talking to me—telling me a story—and his playing was on the surface deceptively simple, but his tone, his groove and his breath technique were as virtuosic as they were wholly unique to him.”
Salgado, another terrific harpist, who also has a magnificent singing voice, was joined by Mayall on his keyboard for a song about a man who can’t eat his breakfast because his “teeth and tongue begin to fight.” Salgado was the role model for John Belushi’s Blues Brothers persona and he told a funny story about The Blues Brothers wanting to acquire the lyrics to a rare Williamson song he performed, “From the Bottom,” and how he told them to buzz off. He was joined by Estrin, his “partner in crime,” for “Too Young to Die,” and they did some nifty chorus-swapping at the end.
It was Mayall who wrapped things up with a rousing “All My Love in Vain” followed by a tour de force solo-harmonica rendition of “Hot Rice,” his tribute to Williamson (aka “Rice” Miller). Mayall did a lot of keyboard playing with his right hand while playing harmonica with his left hand on the next two songs. It all came to a glorious close with everyone on stage for a stunning performance of “Help Me,” with Mayall’s Roland VK keyboard in the Hammond B3 mode and Hummel, Estrin, Salgado and even Little Charlie all on harmonicas driving the song to its conclusion.