Mark Hummel’s Blues Harmonica Blowout started in January 1991 as a modest one-nighter at Berkeley’s Ashkenaz Music and Dance Community Center. The show returned annually until the venue owner was murdered in 1996. It then gradually morphed into its current state as a yearly, nearly two-week winter tour of rotating harp legends and journeymen complemented by guitar, bass, and drums.
Backstage during the Blowout’s 2015 stop at the Harris Center, Hummel and harp-ace/vocalist Rick Estrin of the Nightcats and local bandleader Kyle Rowland, 22, broached the topic of injecting some younger blood into the tour. “Rick kind of came up with the idea and talked me into it,” said Hummel in a recent phone call from his Castro Valley. home.
The 2016 tour, which stops at the Harris Center on Wednesday, Jan. 27, does just that, bringing several generations of harmonica players together for a memorable evening. The tour’s patriarch is 82-year-old Louisiana native Lazy Lester. “He’s kind of like the Energizer Bunny, man,” Hummel said. “He’s a character and a half. He was basically the all-around session guy at Excello (Records) for Jay Miller. He would do everything from run errands to play guitar to play drums to play harmonica to contribute to songwriting.” Lester’s records at Excello included 1958’s “I’m a Lover Not a Fighter,” which was covered by the Kinks.
The generation below Lester includes 60-somethings Hummel (on his Seydel stainless steel reedplate 1864, gapped to be very loud and airtight) and Curtis Salgado, who was featured in the soul-influenced Robert Cray Band. Salgado also sang with Santana and toured with Roomful of Blues.
The “youngsters” in the show are Rowland, who often joined Mick Martin and the Blues Rockers on stage as a preteen; Mumbai-born and current Bay Area resident Aki Kumar, 35; and multi-instrumentalist Big John Atkinson, 25.
There’s a smorgasbord of vocal styles and musical genres on tap for the 2016 tour, ranging from classic Chicago, West Coast and Texas-roadhouse blues to R&B and funk. The band slots once filled by Hummel’s longtime Blues Survivors are now populated with the Golden State-Lone Star Review. Those players include guitarists Anson Funderburgh and “Little” Charlie Baty, bassist RW Grigsby and drummer Wes Starr.
Hummel remembers a time when the harp was a much more widely played instrument. “I started playing harmonica in high school,” Hummel said. “I was 14 or 15 and the guys I first heard playing harmonica were like Jack Bruce in Cream. Everybody in rock bands played a little harmonica. The guy in Grand Funk Railroad or the Yardbirds, Mick Jagger, Brian Jones. Those were the guys you heard because they were on the radio all the time.”
Hummel kept noticing the names of Willie Dixon, Muddy Waters and Howlin’ Wolf in the credits of rock records and finally bought a Dixon recording. Then he dug deeper into the likes of Little Walter’s “My Babe,” Muddy Waters’ “Hoochie Coochie Man” and Howlin’ Wolf’s “Spoonful,” and found those records to be superior to their rock covers.
“When I heard those old guys doing it, it was such a direct connection to my soul,” Hummel said. “I just understood that music more than I did the rock music. And one thing I’d like people to see is how there are young people learning this old style of blues and playing it in the same traditions as my generation played it, which was old style but with a lot of youthful energy.
“I think about the fact that the fire was so bright in me when I was at that age,” he added. “And I see it with these young guys.”
Mark Hummel’s Blues Harmonica Blowout
When: 7:30 p.m. Wednesday, Jan. 27
Where: Harris Center, 10 College Parkway, Folsom
Information: 916-608-6888; harriscenter.net