Shades of blue

Mark Hummel & The Blues Survivors

Blues harpist Mark Hummel is regarded as one of the world’s greatest.

Blues harpist Mark Hummel is regarded as one of the world’s greatest.

What better illustrates the mathematical paradox that multiplying a negative by another negative results in a positive more than the birth of the blues? Formed in the crucible of slavery and the misery of the times, blues music is at once a pinnacle of pure humanity and raw bliss; a furious blowout of overwhelming joy in an absolute boundless world of pain. Without blues, there would be no jazz, no rockabilly, rock ‘n’ roll, no rhythm and blues or even hip-hop today. Still, being a blues musician usually means a lifetime of hustling from show to show, toiling in relative obscurity.

“You can work your whole life, and then all of a sudden somebody decides that you’re hip, and you’re all over the place,” says Mark Hummel, East Bay-based blues harpist who’s generally regarded as one of the world’s greatest, though his humility prevents him from taking any claims like that too seriously.

Mark Hummel finds a bit of solace in the blues. “Since it’s never really crossed over and been in style, it’s never really gotten a chance to go out of style, either,” says the front man of the Blues Survivors.

From vicious gasp to breathy hum, Hummel is a master at blowing expression and plaintive emotion through the 10 holes of his harmonica. His embouchure is the stuff of pure virtuosity.

Though Hummel was voted “most likely to be a rock star” by his high school class, he says he has always been and will always be a blues man.

Hummel and the four-piece Blues Survivors, made up of guitarist Rusty Zinn, R.W. Grigsby on bass and Mick Kilgos on the drums, have been around, to say the least.

“I was trying to add it up the other day,” says Hummel with a laugh. “I think we’ve probably crossed the country 180 times or so touring.”

Often sporting a white hat and colored sunglasses, Hummel says the group mainly does originals but sometimes throws an obscure blues number into the set and puts their stylistic imprint on the tune.

“There are so many bands that do ‘Mustang Sally,’ and blues audiences are always changing a lot,” he says. “The marketing of blues has changed a lot, too. Blues has always been pretty underground.”

Obscurity does have some advantages.

“When big companies get involved, when big dollars get involved, it usually kind of kills the authenticity,” he says.

The music becomes something like a parody of blues. “It becomes something else. Like the Blues Brothers. It lacks legitimacy.”

Hummel says he was first attracted to the harp because of its mysterious and hidden elements. Played so close to the mouth and hidden by the hand, a player’s technique is often hard to decipher. Hummel says he took lessons from a couple of guys while in high school, fell in love with the instrument, and he’s been playing 120-150 dates a year pretty much ever since.

It’s easy for a blues man to exhaust himself financially and emotionally.

“I know a lot of musicians, they lose an agent, and all of a sudden they’re dead in the water,” he says. “You’re often at the mercy of people without the purest of intentions. Even B.B. King got hip to doing his own books because he was tired of being ripped off.”

For Hummel & The Blues Survivors, music is far from a spectator sport. “When I play, I like to make the crowd dance,” he says. “It’s my way of being interactive with the crowd.”

Hummel draws influences from blues legends James Cotton, Little Walter, Sonny Boy Williamson and Muddy Waters.

“Sometimes I think I was born in the wrong era,” he says, finding the ‘40s, ‘50s and ‘60s more to his taste.

“My style and my tastes have changed over the years, but I always come back to blues.”