Mojo still working

Big Room was jumpin’ for annual harp-a-thon

Vocalist Deitra Farr teams up with harp-man R.J. Mischo at the Big Room.

Vocalist Deitra Farr teams up with harp-man R.J. Mischo at the Big Room.

Photo by Ken Pordes

Mark Hummel’s Chicago Blues Harp Blowout, Jan. 22, Sierra Nevada Big Room.

Last Monday’s (Jan. 22) edition of Mark Hummel’s annual harp-a-thon at the Sierra Nevada Brewing Co. Big Room was titled “Chicago Blues Harp Blowout,” and true to its billing, it featured a song list of Chicago blues and a handful of musicians with serious credentials.

Headlining the bill was Billy Boy Arnold, a spry octogenarian who began his set some 90 minutes into the evening’s program by introducing himself and stating that, “I only sing the blues.” He opened with “Bad Luck Blues,” an original on which he urged his woman to straighten up and stop running around. Equally at home on harmonica as he is on guitar, the genial Chicago native was accompanied by ex-Muddy Waters guitarist and nattily attired John Primer (dress shirt, tie, vest and fedora adorned with a feather), who’d just finished his 25-minute set.

Arnold switched from harmonica to guitar with equal facility as he and the band—Bob Welsh, piano/guitar; Billy Flynn, guitar/vocals; R.W. Grigsby, bass; and June Core, drums—worked their way through songs whose themes mostly involved telling men and women to straighten up, stop running around and come home. The highlight of his set was a magnificently rendered version of his mid-1950s hit, the lilting “I Wish You Would,” with everyone in terrific form—especially drummer Core, whose accompaniment all night was spot on, whatever the tempo.

The music began right on time at 7:30 p.m., and the full house was treated to a vocal by guitarist Flynn, whose credentials include having worked and recorded with numerous Chicago blues musicians, e.g., The Legendary Blues Band. Next up was singer Oscar Wilson, a member of Chicago’s Cash Box Kings, who strung together a series of blues clichés—nice backing by Welsh on piano—before digging into the Little Walter classic, “Last Night.” Written as a tribute to a fallen friend, it was soon interpreted as someone’s having been dumped by a lover. Its slow tempo featured some fine harmonica by Hummel—who popped up a few more times. After a peppy “Goin’ Away, Baby” (“to wear you off my mind”), it was time for harmonicist R.J. Mischo, who got the dance crowd energized with an uptempo rendition of “The Hucklebuck” that also had nifty solos by guitarist Flynn and pianist Welsh.

Mischo introduced singer Deitra Farr, another Chicago native who’s appeared on two well-received albums with the Windy City band Mississippi Heat. A short, stocky vocalist with a powerful voice, the cheery singer gave her all on Little Walter’s “Just Your Fool.” Accompanied by Mischo, she followed it up with a powerful version of his “Blues With a Feeling,” (“That’s what I have today … What a lonesome feeling …when the one you love has gone away”).

The floor was full of dancers for her extended version of Jimmy Reed’s “Shame, Shame, Shame” that preceded John Primer’s set. The 72-year-old’s “Call Me John Primer” was a roaring slide guitar feature à la Muddy Waters’ “Long Distance Call.” A few more tunes and it was time for Billy Boy Arnold. When his half hour was up, everyone came to the stage for the finale, that old blues warhorse “Got My Mojo Working,” and before we knew it, the music was over until next year’s blowout.