On the night of Jan. 28 2009 I had the great pleasure of listening to and playing in the Blues Harmonica Blowout organized by Mark Hummel in Modesto, CA. This…

On the night of Jan. 28 2009 I had the great pleasure of 
listening to and playing in the Blues Harmonica Blowout
organized by Mark Hummel in Modesto, CA. This version of
the Blowout features Mark, Curtis Salgado, Charlie Musselwhite,
and Lee Oskar. I was invited to the show by Lee, and Mark
invited me onstage for the final number, an extended jam
featuring all the players on "Comin' Home Baby." It was a
great night, one of the highlights of my experience as a
listener and performer.

On the listening side, it was thoroughly inspiring to hear
four superb players with very distinct styles at the top of
their respective games, supported by a topnotch rhythm section
that included Rusty Zinn on guitar. Mark Hummel puts out a
big, rocking wall of sound on the harmonica--his tone on both
diatonic and chromatic harps is deep and powerful, and when he
took the stage after the opening act, there was no doubt that
it was harmonica time in Modesto. His singing was equally
strong, and the overall effect was tremendously soulful and
satisfying.

Portland-based Curtis Salgado was up next, and for me he was
the revelation of the night. I last saw Curtis at SPAH in
1998, where I didn't get to hear him play much. In the
intervening years, I've read various glowing reviews of his
work, and now it's time to add mine. Salgado was simply
terrific--one of the best blues harmonica players I've seen
anywhere. His lines and tone were continuously varied, and
he knows for sure how to build a solo. Whether he played
fast, or slow, or in between, he was clearly in total command
of his instrument at every point. Did I mention that his
singing was also top-notch? In a word, it was a thrilling
performance.

Both Salgado and Hummel played through meteor amps, Hummel
using a vintage Astatic biscuit mic. Both players sounded
great, as you'd expect, but what was most interesting to me
was how different they sounded through the same gear.

During the intermission that followed Salgado, Hummel found
out that the show, which had started a little before 9 PM
(opening act not included), was supposed to end at 11--long
before planned. So at 10:20 PM, Lee Oskar went onstage for
a 20-minute set, followed by Charlie Musselwhite with another
20-minute set.

I've known Lee for about 38 years, and it's inspiring to hear
how his playing has grown over that time. In the early 1970s,
he played solos that consisted of beautiful long tones--he'd
hold a note with a lovely, clean tone until you wanted to
scream. In the years since then, he's incorporated jazz
harmonies and phrases into his lines, he plays all over the
harp, he makes brilliant use of special tunings for both
single notes and amazing chords, and he's incorporated
plenty of cool effects into his rig. Lee was, and remains,
a unique and compelling voice for the instrument. His set
included both funk and jazz, with a beautiful rendition of
my favorite song of all time, "In a Sentimental Mood."

Musselwhite took the stage after Lee, and he turned in a
great, hi-voltage performance, as expected. It was
interesting to hear how Rusty Zinn changed his sound and
approach to back Musselwhite--more edgy, more overdrive and
sustain in the guitar, as opposed to the sound he used to
back Hummel and Salgado.

Immediately following Charlie's last song--"You Know It Ain't
Right", recorded originally on "Takin' My time," his
landmark 1971 album on Arhoolie Records--Hummel brought all
the players up on stage for a last-song jam on "Comin Home
Baby", and I was invited to join the crew. On my way up,
I did some heavy thinking about how I would contribute to
this piece. I decided that I would use the stage mic rather
than an amped setup, specifically because I knew that I
would play my Lee Oskar Natural Minor G harp in 2nd position,
and the extensive chording I planned to use would sound like
mush coming through a tube amp via a Green Bullet mic.
 (Y'know, if you want to stand out next to amped blues harp
heavy hitters like Musselwhite, Hummel, and Salgado, not to
mention a unique approach like Lee's, you might as well try
something completely different.) This turned out to be a
good strategy, although if I had to do it again, I'd swap
out the Shure SM58 vocal mic for my Audix Fireball V, which
I had in my bag along with my harps. Among other things,
the clean harp sound added a sweetness to the ensemble sound
onstage that was otherwise missing, and it allowed me to chord
behind the other players without turning their sounds into
mush, too.

The soloists on this piece went from left to right across the
stage--Lee, Charlie, Mark, Curtis, then me. I had the
pleasure of hearing everyone else play their 4-5 choruses
before I did mine, and it was TOTALLY inspiring. When my turn
came, I opened up with a melody harmonized in perfect 5ths--
something you can only do on a natural minor harp--and took
it from there. Among other things, I used a lot of chording,
as well as a few of my patented contrary-motion licks (like
the one where I start with a two-octave spread on the blow 3
and 9 reeds and then walk the ends towards the middle). I
reminded myself throughout to take it easy, enjoy myself,
and make beautiful sounds, as opposed to straining to play
as hard as I could. Halfway through my solo, I looked to my
left and saw Charlie Musselwhite looking at me with a big
smile on his face. Given that Charlie Musselwhite was my
single most important inspiration throughout my early years
as a serious musician, this was for me a profoundly
satisfying moment.

Following my solo, we wrapped up the piece with two head
choruses. I used the natural minor to add harmonies to the
lead line. The overall sound of the harps onstage was huge.
After the last notes of the second head chorus, each of the
harp players played a brief coda, again going across the stage
from left to right, me last. This time, instead of a chorded
approach, I played a line in rapid triplets that started in
the bottom octave and ended in the top, and it worked very
well. When all was done, the audience went ape, not for the
first time that night. And why not--that was two hours plus
of some of the best harp playing I've ever heard, backed by
a great rhythm section.

Afterwards, Musselwhite complimented my playing, and I had
the opportunity to tell him that his records were my
inspiration--that until I heard his recording of "Christo
Redentor" from the "Tennesse Woman" album, I had no idea how
much emotion could be conveyed with a harmonica. It was nice
to be able to convey my thanks under these circumstances.

Like I said--it was a great night to be a listener and a
performer.
I believe the ticket price for this show was $40, and for that
price the audience had the opportunity to hear four great
and very different harp players put out a lot of great music.
When the Blowout comes to your town, go and bring your
friends. You'll be very glad you did.


Leave a Reply