Yup! That’s a mouthful of a title for a review, but playing the harmonica like these guys do is also a mouthful. Like a mini-blues version of Ringo Starr’s All Star Band, Mark Hummel puts together his own all star band every year for the Blues Harmonica Blowout Tour. Each Blowout Band features an ever-changing cast of blowhards (get it?), as well as some regulars who can be counted on to entertain the crowds each year.
After a five year absence, Harrah’s Lake Tahoe welcomed the show to its stage again. With so many guest artists filling the lineup, these shows are like a series of short vignettes. Each lineup of players got to play three or four songs, then there would be a change of players on stage.
Mark Hummel acted as host, blues educator, performer, and MC for the evening. The ‘theme’ of this year’s tour is “A Tribute to Bluebird Records.” Mark shared a brief history of Bluebird Records at the beginning of the show and introduced each act as they came to the stage.
First up was a pair of visitors from the East Coast, Rich Yescalis playing a large hollow body Gibson guitar, and one of the most highly regarded harp players from back East, Steve Guyger. As they sat together at center stage it was almost hypnotic to watch their knees move and toes tap in perfect unison as Rich displayed the most feather light finger picking I think I’ve ever heard and Steve played his harp beautifully and boomed out bluesy lyrics in his baritone voice.
After a very brief break to bring out other musicians Hummel joined Bob Welch (Elvin Bishop’s guitarist and pianist), Charlie Baty (formerly of Little Charlie and The Nightcats), June Core (Charlie Musselwhite’s drummer), and his own longtime bass man, RW Grigsby. The thickness and tempo of the blues were kicked up a notch with this crew. Mark played professor with a little history up front before they laid it down. After about 20 minutes they were joined by the phenomenal Rick Estrin (of Rick Estrin and The Nightcats). Rick and Little Charlie have played together for 32 years! After they played a couple tunes together Rick had the band leave the stage and he played an awesome solo version of “Crawlin’ Kingsnake” — just him, his voice and his harmonica. It was a special moment.
At this point they took a 20 minute intermission which is uncommon for a show of this type. With the revolving manpower on stage there was no real need for a rest. As it turned out, this was an opportunity for audience members to hit the lobby and shop merchandise. These guys are the blue-collar musicians of the industry. There is no fat money record company paying for support staff, limousines and hotel rooms. As a matter of fact, the last time Hummel brought this show to Tahoe he asked me to pick up John Mayall at the Reno airport and bring him up to the lake. Valerie, I and her Explorer were the limousine staff. These guys work long late hours and work their asses off to make their lives work doing something that they all love. The tip jar, a cover charge, or the purchase of a CD – these are all essential elements to making life on the road possible. There’s no 401k at the end of this show.
After the break the big guns, Billy Boy Arnold and Elvin Bishop came to the stage and joined the previously mentioned gang of minstrels. They started off with one of Billy Boys originals from the 1950’s called “I Wish You Would” which was also recorded by David Bowie and the Yardbirds with Eric Clapton. Billy Boy has an impressive resume. After a handful of killer Billy Boy songs, it was Elvin’s turn to take center stage. He did so just like B.B. King – seated. Elvin wore his best overalls, flannel shirt and work boots for the show. Very impressive! He played some songs off of his new CD, “Can’t Even Do Wrong Right.” I was impressed with how fresh and lively it was. After all, how many guys write new stuff at 72 years old? Elvin is very funny and talented as a performer. He was a joy to watch.
After Elvin’s set the whole gang came out for an encore. Unfortunately the clock was ticking and they had to wrap it up after only about six minutes of playing together. Like Chris Farley’s Fat guy in a little coat gag, this was a big show in a little timeslot (but not funny). The South Shore Room has to be turned into a nightclub after the shows so there is a cutoff time in place. This show could easily have gone another hour and not felt too long. As it was, it went by much too fast. As much as I appreciated the conversations and history that was coming from the stage in between songs it damaged the momentum. With the short window of time in which to play I think more time should have been given to the music.
Would I go again? You bet!