MARK HUMMEL: BLUES FLAG WAVER
By Paul Freeman
When Bay Area blues harmonica great Mark Hummel is on stage with his band and everything is clicking, he experiences a rush like no other.
“It’s the greatest thing I can think of in life. Better than Ice cream. Better than sex sometimes. There’s nothing that compares, except maybe flying for the first time,” Hummel said.
He’s equally at home at cozy clubs and vast outdoor festibvals. “I enjoy all these different kinds of venues. In a smaller venue, you have that intimate contact with the audience. When it’s a bigger stage and more people, you can get an amazing energy level. And I always enjoy watching little kids dance to the blues at the outdoor shows. It’s apples and oranges. And I like both.”
Hummel loves the blues. “The blues is the root of it all, in terms of American music - rock ‘n’ roll, jazz and country. I certainly have always been a flag waver for the blues, especially the real blues, the older style, the originators of it.”
Country blues guitarist Nathan James will join Hummel on all three dates. James is well suited to the acoustic style Hummel features on his enthralling new album, “Unplugged: Back Porch Music.”
Now based in Castro Valley, Hummel was born in Connecticut and raised in Los Angeles. Hearing Sonny Terry’s playing drew him to the harmonica.
“I just found it really mysterious and really appealing. You can’t see what a harmonica player is doing when they’re playing. It’s different from every other instrument in that regard. Piano or saxophone or guitar, you can see the guy’s fingers moving. With the harmonica, it’s all hidden behind his hands. I couldn’t tell how he was doing all that, making that sound.”
Later Hummel was captivated by Chicago harp players like Little Walter and Big Walter Horton. “That was a whole different thing, because they were playing through an amplifier, holding a mic, so they weren’t getting the hand wah-wahs that somebody like Sonny Terry or Sonny Boy Williamson would get. But they were getting this really round, saxophone-like, amplified sound. That became this other thing that I really went after. For most of the time, that was my main thing. But as I keep playing, over the years, I find myself going back to the more acoustic and unplugged sound as much as I do the amplified stuff.”
Hummel has emulated many of the legendary harmonica players. He has also been influenced by the phrasing of guitarists, piano players and saxophonists. “The funny thing about years of playing is that eventually, you do come up with your own unique kind of style. It’s weird, because other people tell me all the time, ‘I hear you play and I know it’s you immediately.’ But I can’t tell hear it.”
Gradually, the instrument becomes like an extension of the player. “The exciting thing is, when you get up there, you know your instrument well enough to be free on it. That’s what it’s all about, when you can think of a lick and transmit it out the instrument.”
Hummel, 55, has played alongside such legends as Charlie Musselwhite, Lowell Fulson, Eddie Taylor and Sonny Terry’s former performing partner, Brownie McGhee. In addition to wailing on the harp, Hummel is an expressive singer.
“I don’t consider myself a harmonica player first and a vocalist second. But it’s something I’m constantly working on, something I really enjoy.”
He also enjoys presenting his Blues Harmonica Blowouts, which bring together such talents as James Cotton, Curtis Salgado, Huey Lewis, Kim Wilson, Snooky Pryor, Rick Estrin, John Mayall and Norton Buffalo.
“It’s a chance for all the bandleaders to hang up their band-leading spurs and just enjoy being on a gig and not have to sweat all the other stuff. You just do your 20 minutes and hang out with all the different players. Nice way to relax and have a good time playing music with different people. I always have a great band and that’s a plus for them, too.”
His own band, The Blues Survivors band has had terrific musicians over the years. In recent months, in addition to Nathan James, the guitar slot has been filled by such prominent talents as Steve Freund and Little Charlie Baty. At one point, their bass player was Mike Judge, later the creator of “Beavis and Butthead.”
“The guys in the band told me he used to sit in the back of the van and draw cartoons of all of us. Unfortunately, I never got any,” Hummel said, laughing.
Hummel will tour Europe this fall and has an autobiography nearing publication. On being a blues survivor, he said, “In my eyes, the music’s got to be your number one priority. If I didn’t have as strong a feeling as I do for music, and blues music in particular, I don’t think I could have made it this long. I would have probably folded under the pressure.
“If I was in it for any other reason, I’d be out of my tree, because the music business is one of the most gut bucket businesses you can think of. It requires a lot of commitment to traveling and dealing with ups and downs. Somebody that’s up this year is down the next. It’s always evolving and styles are constantly changing. It’s a very insecure, precarious way to live a life.”
After spending most of his life playing blues harmonica, Hummel still discovers new licks. “It’s constantly learning and relearning things that keeps it fresh and fun.”
For the latest on this artist, visit www.markhummel.com.