Blown down

Blues harp mastery at the Big Room

Blues Harmonica Blowout III
It’s amazing how much sound—and emotion— a blues harp master can get out of his tiny instrument, as four such masters showed Tuesday night at the Big Room. Beginning with Mark Hummel, the emcee and organizer of this traveling roadshow, and continuing through James Harman and Paul deLay to the headliner, Chicago blues legend James Cotton, they ran the gamut of styles, tones and riffs. The harp players in the audience had to be impressed.

Adding to the mix was the intense playing of SoCal guitarist Jr. Watson, whose hyperactive style was nicely complemented by Charlie Wheal, the smooth-playing guitarist in Hummel’s backing band, the Blues Survivors. As the harp masters took turns out in front, these two guys—along with bassist Steve Wolf and drummer Marty Dotson—kept the groove going throughout.

The emphasis was on blues classics—some Elmore James here, a little Jimmy Reed there—and the presence of such greats as deLay and Cotton. DeLay seemed tired—he said as much—and he’s so big now he needs a stool to sit on, à la Etta James, but he was funny as ever and what a player! Harman, who with his round figure and long, gray beard could double as a hobbit in The Lord of the Rings, was a surprise to many, with his strong playing and singing on a couple of terrific songs (one involving ice cream, as I remember—I was dancing, not taking notes). And Cotton, whose singing voice is gone, still plays brilliantly, albeit from a chair.

Hummel was a slick, effective emcee and singer, and he and Cotton did some great riffing together. The finale, a rousing version of "Got My Mojo Working," saw all four harpists on stage playing like madmen, trying to blow down the house—and succeeding.