Give me an E
Harp Blowout brings out the big names at the Big Room
Oakland harmonica player/ vocalist Mark Hummel has produced and performed at his eponymous Blues Harmonica Blowout for 16 years now. Hummel’s annual traveling Blowouts have become known for the caliber of talent showcased; previous Blowouts have featured such harp hotshots as James Cotton, Charlie Musselwhite, Huey Lewis and Paul deLay.
Sunday night’s Blowout at the Big Room was true to form: On the bill were legendary harmonica men Jerry Portnoy (cred: Muddy Waters Blues Band, Legendary Blues Band and Eric Clapton), Lee Oskar (whose signature harp playing helped define the sound of trailblazing funk-jazz outfit War) and Magic Dick of J. Geils Band fame.
Hummel, dressed all in black with a black hat, and his Blues Survivors opened the three-hour show to an enthusiastic, sold-out house with five songs, including the New-Orleans-style Eddie Bo tune “I’m Wise,” from Hummel’s live CD, Blowin’ My Horn. By song three of Hummel’s short set, Ray Charles’ “Get On the Right Track, Baby,” dancers filled the floor. My vote for sweetest dance floor sighting of the night was when Hummel’s band played the classic Gershwin beauty “Summertime,” and I watched Big Room emcee/promoter Bob Littell slow-dancing with his wife Laura Joplin, sister of Janis, who recorded one of the definitive versions of “Summertime.”
Portnoy, looking wonderfully like a lounge lizard with his pencil-thin mustache, dapper suit and snakeskin shoes, got up on stage next, trading places with Hummel to front the band.
“All right, ladies and gentlemen, it’s blu-u-u-es time,” Portnoy delivered slowly in his deep voice, before getting down to the business of singing and playing harp on some seriously slow blues.
Portnoy is not afraid to milk his long lonesome road sound for every drop of emotion he can get. One of the highlights of Portnoy’s set was “Charge It,” a funny song about living beyond one’s means. Also pleasing was his cover of jazz great Horace Silver’s “Doodlin'.” Blues Survivors guitarist Charles Wheal’s excellently distorted accompaniment on “Doodlin',” as on many other tunes that night, was a pleasure to hear.
After intermission, Oskar got down with his signature sound—or rather, he got side-to-side: He had a cool, quirky, sideways way of keeping the beat with his body—playing way up high and way down low, his tone affected variously and nicely by a number of effects. Everyone at our table started referring affectionately to Oskar as “The Scientist” because of his seemingly very studied (and unique and interesting) approach to his instrument. His playing was a great combination of intellect and get-down-ness. Oskar’s version of Duke Ellington’s “In A Sentimental Mood” was beautiful.
Magic Dick, looking more like a 30-year-old than 60, finished things off nicely with his set, drawing the audience under his spell like the seasoned pro that he is. With plenty of props to “King of the Harmonica,” Sonny Boy Williamson, Magic Dick and his band played Sonny Boy’s “Nine Below Zero” and a snappy “Pontiac Blues.” And, of course, he obliged the audience by playing his signature “Whammer Jammer.”
The show’s closing saw Magic Dick and The Blues Survivors joined onstage by Hummel, Portnoy, Oskar, Rick Estrin of Little Charlie & the Nightcats (we’d spotted Estrin in the audience from time to time during the night) and Littell for a six-harp jam with fellow harp player Lazy Lester (another drop-in) on guitar, doing a song, as Lester put it, “in the neighborhood of E.”
The last song of the night, as the others drifted off-stage, was a fun little jam by Lester and Oskar, which inspired those of us watching from the dance floor to happily and rhythmically clap along till it was over.