Most avid blues fans like to talk about the authenticity of any given blues artist or recording, with a kind of condescending attitude for music that is too much based on popular styles. But when you get down to it, most of today's blues fans discovered the blues through popular rock & roll artists, including the early Rolling Stones and Eric Clapton in the 1960s, the Dan Ackroyd and John Belushi's Blues Brothers in the 1970s, Stevie Ray Vaughan in the 1980s, on up to bluesy alternative bands like Blues Traveler plus Clapton again in the 1990s. And most of them based their music on the electric blues that came out of Chicago with artists like Muddy Waters and Howlin' Wolf. The majority of blues recordings you will find on the record store shelves today still are based on the electric Chicago model.
But with the current revival in popularity of the blues, and the rise in independent record companies releasing great numbers of blues recordings, there are many albums appearing in some of the other older blues styles, including acoustic so-called "country blues," jazz-based jump-band blues, early R&B, and styles associated with particular locales such as Kansas City, Memphis and New Orleans. There has also been a healthy mixing of these previously disparate sounds in the work of up-and-coming artists who learned their blues from a wide variety of sources, not just from playing on a local scene.
This week's album is a good example of this catholic, with a small "c," approach to the blues. It's the second release by veteran San Francisco area harmonica man Mark Hummel entitled Married to the Blues.
The United States of America is remarkably full of great blues performers who have been plying their trade for years and years mainly before live, regional audiences, without gaining much national recognition. Mark Hummel has been performing with his harmonica for two decades and touring as far away as Europe. But it was only last year that he that he got to release his debut nationally-distributed recording entitled Feel Like Rockin'. Now, he is out with an outstanding follow-up, Married to the Blues, a good title considering his career. In it, Hummel mixes mainly Chicago-style amplified harmonica in the Little Walter mode with an early R&B sound featuring an upright bass and a more toned-down electric guitar, a boogie-woogie style piano and a horn section. The arrangements and styles vary from track to track on the album, and even sometimes within tunes, for example with Hummel alternating between amplified and acoustic harmonica.
On the album, consisting mainly of original compositions, but with some older obscure blues tunes included, Hummel is joined by a first-rate band including bassist Vance Elhers, who plays acoustic upright bass throughout, something that immediately gives the album a wonderful 1940s or 1950s aura. It's remarkable how much difference an acoustic bass can make to the sound of a blues album, and it's something that is fortunately making a comeback. The guitarist is Rusty Zinn, who plays both a softer jazzy style and in the rough-edged Chicago blues influenced sound. Lance Dickerson and Jim Overton alternate on the drums. Guests on the album include Duke Robillard, who replaced Jimmy Vaughan as guitarist in the Fabulous Thunderbirds, before Robillard himself left recently. Added on keyboards are Jim Pugh of the Robert Cray Band and pianist Steve Lucky, who is a good boogie-woogie player. Another well-known harmonica man, Charlie Musselwhite sits in on one harmonica duet track, which works surprisingly well.
While there's nothing on this album that hasn't been done before in one form or another, it's a great example of the blues in action: simple music played with the kind of verve and spirit that separates the men from the boys in the blues world. It's music that really cooks largely without being loud or fast. The generally swingy rhythms ensures blues fans will be at least tapping their feet, and probably wanting to get up and dance. The aura of the recording is live and spontaneous, and the band is obviously having a good time.
Married to the Blues begins with a track that illustrates the album's mixture of jump-band blues with Chicago-style harmonica. They Don't Want Me To Rock, an old tune by Buddy Johnson who wrote Since I Fell For You, is served up with the horn section and Hummel doing both vocal parts. The result is a great swinging shuffle.
Another gem on this album that seems to echo from another era is an original by Hummel called Find Some Boogie, whose lyrics distinguish between various musical genres. The great piano work is provided by Steve Lucky.
Also with a boogie beat, but with Rusty Zinn's guitar cranked up Chicago style, is another tune with lyrics about musical genres Rock & Roll Baby. Hummel puts in some hot electric harmonica.
Guitarist Duke Robillard appears on three tracks, two of which are the most electric on the album. The first, an original by Hummel called I'm Gone features Robillard playing slide style. But when it comes time for his solo, Hummel keeps his harmonica acoustic.
Robillard also appears on one of the album's best boogies, a Johnny Guitar Watson tune called I Got Eyes, which also features the horn section in an arrangement that recalls Robillard's old band Roomful of Blues.
Another all-out Chicago style tune is an original called Bluesman, a tribute to some of Hummel's mentors.
Married to the Blues contains three instrumentals that are also among the album's highlights. My favorite is Jungle Scotch Plaid, a jazzy tune with Jim Pugh featured on the organ. Hummel shows he's no slouch in the area of taste on his blues harp.
Hummel get together with harmonica legend Charlie Musselwhite on High Steppin.' The album's liner notes point out that harmonica players tend to be "lone-wolf" personalities, and so harmonica collaborations are rare. It's also not easy to keep the harps with their limited tonal range from stepping on each other. Hummel and Musselwhite solve the problem by taking turns on this easy-going shuffle except at the beginning and end.
About the closest thing to a slow blues is the title track Married to the Blues. It's another strong track, except for the odd unison overdubbed vocals by Hummel.
Like all good blues albums Mark Hummel's new release Married to the Blues keeps to the music's principles of honesty, spirit and interaction among the performers. The harmonica man proves himself to be a great practitioner of his instrument and an appealing vocalist whose influences come from various stylistic areas and eras of the blues from the jazzy jump-band sounds of Louis Jordan to the blistering Chicago blues of Muddy Waters, with Little Walter on the harmonica. It all combines for an appealing, upbeat album that's an invitation to get up and boogie.
The honest sound of the album extends to the recording process. The album really sounds as if everybody was recorded live in the studio. There are a few little glitches, both technical and musical, that would have probably been redone if this were recorded piecemeal like a typical rock album. But the technical imperfections are more than compensated for by the sound that captures the quality of a live blues band. The exception to that are the two tracks with Hummel singing doubled vocal parts by way of overdubbing.
Mark Hummel's Married to the Blues is a great all-around good-time blues album from a veteran performer who now hopefully will get the recognition he deserves.
This is George Graham.
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