Last Thursday, one day before the start of Mark Hummel's 22nd Blues Harmonica Blow-Out Tour, the harp player was on the phone calling from his Oakland home. Things didn't look good. He'd just talked with a couple of band members who were stuck in Chicago -- the airport was snowed in. Winter storms were in full force and it didn't look like the weather was going to let up soon. He'd also learned that the driver taking the tour north doesn't have chains for his vehicle. "It's just another start of another tour. It's the blues. What can I say?" he chuckled. There's a reason Hummel calls his band The Blues Survivors.
The Harmonica Blow-Out tours are always packed with blues harp stars: This time out Charlie Musselwhite, Curtis Salgado, Billy Boy Arnold and Sugar Ray Norcia are with him, backed by an ad hoc combo that includes guitar ace Little Charlie Batty, formerly of Little Charlie and the Nightcats.
Hummel says he got into playing harmonica almost by accident. "I was surrounded by friends who played really good guitar and I never felt adept on guitar. Everyone kind of goofed around with the harp. I tried it and just became really mystified with it. I ended up spending all my time listening to records, trying to play along."
He started out with blues-rock, bands like Big Brother, Blue Cheer, Cream and Jimi Hendrix. "I kept seeing the same songs on all these records and the same names next to the songs as writers." That led him to Muddy Waters and to a song called "Juke" that featured "Little" Walter Jacobs on harmonica. Blues historians generally agree: Little Walter's playing revolutionized blues harp.
"I was totally taken with Walter. I went out and got everything he ever played on," said Hummel. "He was one of the early guys to amplify the harmonica. There were others before him that did it, but when 'Juke' became a No. 1 hit, that changed the way people looked at harmonica. In his hands it sounded more like a saxophone than a harmonica, almost like an electronic sax. That was what grabbed me; this really deep jazzy tone that he'd get with the harp really affected me. And he really swung. There was nobody with his technical ability, nobody as smooth as he was. I played along with his records and I tried to do what he did."
Little Walter stuck with him to the degree that this tour is a tribute to the man and his music. That influenced the line-up. "Even though I want everyone to play Little Walter material, I was trying to get a mix of sounds -- not all guys who sound like him. Curtis was the first to say he wanted in on it; he has a sound like Walter. Musselwhite has done five Blowouts with me. He and Billy Boy both knew and worked with Walter -- they were friends with him, that was one of the reasons I picked them -- and they have a different sound. Same with Sugar Ray. They all have different takes on harp and play variations of Walter's style."
How does the Blowout work? "It's generally one harp player after another parading across the stage doing their thing," he explained. "And I have a killer band this time: Little Charlie and Billy Flynn on guitars; Billy's from Green Bay and played with all the Chicago guys. I've got June Core on drums; he was in the Nightcats and in my band and now plays with Musselwhite. And R.W. Grigsby is great on bass. I promise you, this is going be a blast."
CenterArts presents Mark Hummel's Blues Harmonica Blowout tribute to Little Walter on Wednesday, Feb. 1, at 8 p.m. in HSU's Van Duzer Theatre. Tickets are $35, $15 for HSU students, available by calling 826-3928 or at humboldt.edu/centerarts.