Purveyors of the blues
An all-star lineup of blues musicians from this side of the Mississippi — Grammy-nominated harp player Mark Hummel, guitarist Rusty Zinn and bassist R.W. Grigsby from the West Coast and guitar player Mike Keller and drummer Wes Star from Texas — will converge to play a benefit show for the Ashland’s Blues Society’s summer music festival.
The group plays a combination of Chicago, West Coast and Texas blues, Hummel says.
“We’re all Chicago blues fiends,” he says, “but our sound is really a melding of those three aspects of music. And we play a mix of Chicago blues by Little Walter, Muddy Waters, Jimmy Reed and Jimmy McCracklin from Arkansas.”
The Golden State Lone Star Revue will perform at 7 p.m. Thursday, April 5, at Grape Street Bar and Grill, 31 S. Grape St., Medford. Tickets are $25 and can be purchased at ashlandblues.org or at the bar.
Hummel was raised in Los Angeles, then moved to the San Francisco Bay Area when he was 18 or 19.
“A lot of those early guys from Texas and the South would record in Los Angeles,” Hummel says during a telephone interview from his home in Oakland. “Some of them moved up here and some toured up here a lot. I’ve been here since the ‘70s and a lot of them are gone. Most of them were 20 or 30 years older than I am. They’d be in their 80s and 90s if they were still alive.”
West Coast and Texas blues have a lot in common, Hummel says.
“I was introduced to the Texas blues sound when I was still in L.A.,” he says. “It was more of a regional sound from Louisiana, Arkansas, Texas and Oklahoma, really kind of a Southwestern sound. Many people had moved from the South during World War II to work in the shipyards on the West Coast.”
Hummel played with old-timers T-Bone Walker, Lowell Folson, McCracklin, Albert Collins, Sonny Rhodes and Brownie McGhee, among others.
“When I moved to the Bay Area, the only gigs available were with guitar players who wanted to do B.B. King or T-Bone Walker songs,” Hummel says. “Bill Graham was booking white blues acts in the Fillmore in San Francisco, but that didn’t do me much good because I was just some upstart harmonica player. He was looking for bands like The Allman Brothers, the Grateful Dead and Paul Butterfield, people like that.”
The only real blues scene Hummel could find was in the ghetto blues bars, or black blues bars, they were called, in Oakland and Richmond, he says.
“I wanted to play so I went to those clubs to meet blues people, and that’s who I hung out with.”
In 1976 Hummel formed The Blues Survivors. By 1985, he and the band were on the road, and he still tours with the Survivors today.
“We’ve gone through a lot of permutations over the years,” he says. “We always seemed to have to replace the drummer or the bass player. I went through a few musicians in the ‘80s and ‘90s. But some, like Rusty, have played with me on and off for years. R.W., too, has stayed with me.”
Hummel and his Survivors have been around the world: England, Italy, Norway, Sweden, Finland, France, Germany and more.
“Blues is a very personal thing,” Hummel says. “When you get into blues, it’s almost like getting religion. If it really grabs you, it’s not going to let go. You’re going to love it your entire career. Some get into the blues and then move on to something else, but for me blues harmonica is the real passion. I got it as a teenager when I felt alienated from everybody. What I heard in the music had a big appeal to me.”
With Golden State Lone Star Revue, Hummel likes to feature the guitarists, not just “rattle my own maracas,” he says.
“One of my missions is to plug good talent. There’s lots of it out there. Rusty and Mike are fine singers, so I try to get them to sing some at the shows.”
Hummel has produced his Blues Harmonica Blowout shows since 1991, teaming up with contemporary blues artists John Mayall, Huey Lewis, James Cotton, Charlie Musselwhite and others for shows all over the globe. Regional favorites Paul deLay, Norton Buffalo and Curtis Salgado are among the stars he’s put in the Blowout series.
“I’ve had all the top dogs on blues harmonica with me,” he says. “I think the only one who hasn’t been is Steve Wonder.”
When Hummel isn’t touring, he plays smaller rooms like The Palms Playhouse in Winters, Poor House in San Jose or Armando’s in Martinez.
“I love the intimacy of smaller clubs that hold only 80 or 90 people,” he says. “The people are right in your face.”
With more than 30 records to his credit, Hummel’s newest album, recorded with Golden State Lone Star Blues Revue, was released in 2016. A new album, “Harp Breaker,” is set to be released in July on Electro-Fi.
Look for music from the 2016 album at the Medford show, along with songs Hummel has performed for 25 or 30 years.
“The bottom line is we love playing music and will drive anywhere and everywhere to play it,” Hummel says.