The fellowship of the harp
The Blues Harmonica Blowout brings together legendary players Kim Wilson, Rod Piazza, and Mark Hummel
by Mark McDermott
They travel relentlessly, the instruments of their obscure trade tucked in velvet-lined cases, carrying within themselves the vestiges of an old tradition steeped in hardscrabble tales and hard-earned wisdom.
They rarely cross paths, but when they do, there’s only one word to describe what happens.
This Saturday night, blues harp players Kim Wilson, Rod Piazza, and Mark Hummel will share a stage in the Blues Harmonica Blowout at Brixton. It’s a rare thing, a gathering of the harps. Guitar players do it all the time, but harmonica players are a lonely tribe unto themselves, and this blowout brings together three of the finest players currently roaming the big blue world.
“We got some pretty bad boys on this one,” said Hummel, who has been organizing these once-a-year harmonica congregations for the last 20 years.
The blowouts have become a unique chapter in the annals of blues history. Over the years, Hummel has managed to bring together nearly every great blues harmonica player alive, including James Cotton, Snooky Pryor, Sam Meyers, John Mayall, Lee Oskar, Carey Bell, Lazy Lester, and Charlie Musselwhite. This year’s iteration is smaller in actual number of players sharing the stage than some blowouts past, but among its greatest in pure punch.
Hummel himself is considered one of the top harmonica virtuosos blowing today. Rod Piazza, likewise, has been a harmonica player emulated by other players for almost 30 years.
And then there is Kim Wilson. He is best known as the bandleader of the Fabulous Thunderbirds, a band who scored several hits two decades ago and brought the harmonica to its widest audience a generation. But he is also a direct link in the chain of great bluesmen. He was dubbed by none other than his friend and mentor Muddy Waters as the world’s greatest harp player when he was only 19 years old.
“I really didn’t let that go to my head because I knew it wasn’t true,” Wilson said in an interview this week. “He thought that, but there was no way I could think of myself that way. But the fact that he did say it made me want to excel to the level he thought I was at.”
Wilson grew up in northern California playing trombone and football – he had professional aspirations in the latter – but abandoned both when he discovered blues as a senior in high school. Only a year later, a very strange thing happened. A promoter and radio personality caught wind of this young hot blues harp player and hatched a plan to knock him down a peg. He gave him a gig with blues veteran Eddie Taylor.
The fresh-faced Wilson suddenly found himself sharing the stage with a band of Chicago blues all-stars that also included Albert Collins.
“Eddie is calling all these song off, putting me through my paces to see what I know,” Wilson recalled. “The guy with the blues radio show got me the gig thinking I wasn’t going to handle it and that would be the end of me. So I got up there with Eddie and it just clicked, and the guy was just incensed. It totally backfired on him and his plan.”
Wilson was off and running, but he was in no hurry. Over the next decade, he played with many of his heroes, including Jimmy Reed, John Lee Hooker, and Howlin’ Wolf. But in proper blues tradition, Wilson paid his dues. He apprenticed.
“I never took it for granted,” Wilson said. “I would look at myself on the bandstand with these guys and I almost had to pinch myself to see if I was really there, and to see if I wasn’t dreaming. I mean, being on the bandstand with Muddy Waters and Jimmy Rodgers and the stuff they’d be telling you and the looks they would be giving you. It was an incredible experience. Luckily, they liked me immediately, or it would have been a real career-buster.”
He took his time and he paid attention. He said “yes sir” and “no sir” and he contentedly served as sideman.
“You got to know when you are ready,” Wilson said. “I suppose I knew I was ready at a young age, but I wasn’t going to go out and make a record – hell, I didn’t make my first record for at least 10 or 12 years…You don’t come to a war with a pea shooter. You come to war with a cannon, if not a nuke. It’s the way you got to think when you are a musician.”
He and Waters grew particularly close. They used to have long talks, and at one point Waters told him to be prepared to one day be one of the few remaining bluesman roaming the planet. Waters, true blues royalty, was passing the torch.
“The whole deal is you have to do it on your own terms,” Wilson said. “You have to have your own voice, and I think that is what Muddy was talking to me about. He wasn’t talking to me about attempting to knock off Muddy Waters or Little Walter records. He was saying he wanted me to go out on my own and take that tradition somewhere. Traditions doesn’t mean that much to some people. It means everything to me.”
One day in the late 1970s , Wilson walked into a room in Austin, Texas to hear a couple of guitar playing brothers named Jimmie and Stevie Ray Vaughn ripping it up. He and Jimmie would found the Fabulous Thunderbirds, and the band would take the blues to stages the size of which the genre had rarely seen – they were the first blues band since the great Little Walter to score national hits.
Wilson has been one of the standard bearers of blues tradition ever since. He has a tone and style that only the masters achieve. His playing is recognizable after just a few notes. His playing has an unhurried yet somehow thunder clapping sound.
“It’s like you are driving a hot car, and everyone knows you are driving a hot car – they want to see you punch it, but you don’t punch it, you just cruise,” he said. “You’ve got to shock them a little bit. Yeah. It’s one of those things. If you are going slow all the time, then speeding all the time, it gets old. You can’t do it when people want you to do it.”
“If you are going to be an acrobat, do something dangerous, like jump through a hoop with a bunch of knives in it, or something,” he added. “Because then you are doing something.”
Wilson calls the blowout tours “keeping bankers hours” since he can save his energy for a half dozen songs a night while sharing the stage not only with two other harp players but two other bandleaders. It’s also a relief, for a week or two a year, to be among his own kind, that strange lonesome breed, his fellow harmonica players.
“To do what we do you’ve got to be nuts,” he said. “You can’t have all your marbles. I’ve got to say, when we were kids, it seemed a lot more of a legitimate thing to do. But in hindsight, I must have been out of my mind to pick this thing up…But I love what I do, man.” ER
The Blues Harp Blowdown is Sat. Feb. 6 at 8 p.m. $20. See brixtonsouthbay.com or markhummel.com for more info. ER