.Blown Away

Mark Hummel’s Blues Harmonica Blowout returns after the COVID shutdown

Two years ago, Mark Hummel’s Blues Harmonica Blowout was going to celebrate its 30th consecutive year of concerts. Then the COVID shutdown went into effect. “We normally have great attendance, but who knows what would have happened,” Hummel said. “[The virus] is still out there, but now we’re not canceling shows, like we did for the last two years. I’m pretty much full speed ahead again. I did 100 road gigs last year, and it’s looking busy on the road this year.” 

During the shutdown, Hummel, one of the Bay Area’s top blues harmonica players, had to make due by presenting live streaming concerts. He also started a video/audio podcast on YouTube and the Apple site, Mark Hummel’s Harmonica Party. “The live streaming was good, but you’re limited on how many you can do, as opposed to live gigs,” Hummel said. “We did well on them, but viewership dropped off after six months.”

“The podcast is my new passion,” Hummel said. “Producer Jeff Vargen came up with the idea, and we’re doing it as a labor of love. So far, we’ve interviewed folks like Angela Strehli, Elvin Bishop, Charlie Musselwhite, Country Joe McDonald, Junior Watson, Anson Funderburgh and many more.” Hummel and his guests discuss the history of the blues and tell stories about their interactions with blues legends, as well as their years on stage and on tour. 

Hummel said he got the idea for the first Blowout after attending a show at the San Francisco Blues Festival. “There was a Battle of the Blues Harmonicas, with harp-based blues bands like Rod Piazza & The Mighty Flyers. I changed the format and had my band backing up the guest harp players I invited. That made it possible to go out and tour with the show, but the first one [at Askenaz, in Berkeley in 1991] was going to be a one off,” he recalled. The attendance at the concert exceeded expectations. Hummel has done a series of Blowout shows every year since, with the exception of the past two pandemic years. 

This year, the Blowout features a freewheeling cast of collaborators, musicians that cover many aspects of the blues. Harmonica player Magic Dick was a member of the J. Geils Band, a group that introduced many people to the sound of the blues. “When I started playing, I bought J. Geils albums,” Hummel said. “I tried to copy Dick, to teach myself how to play the harp. During the pandemic, we became close friends. He mentored me on music theory, so I could get better on chromatic harmonica. We talked once a week and stayed in pretty close touch. He’s a super intelligent guy, with great stories about everything.”

Aki Kumar, a drummer, harp player, songwriter and bandleader, was born in Bombay and came to California to work in Silicon Valley. Hearing Hummel’s band turned him on to the blues. He began taking harmonica lessons and incorporated elements of classical Indian music into his arrangements. “Aki can either go straight blues or work with his signature Bollywood angle,” Hummel said. “He told me he didn’t feel comfortable just being another blues player and wanted to expand into something more inclusive of his background. Aki is one of the best front men in the biz—funny, showy, but humble. He’s got it all.”

The music presented at the Blowouts varies slightly from the sound of Hummel’s regular touring band. But Hummel said it’s natural for the music in the Blowouts and his work with his band to differ. “Your sound evolves spontaneously, no matter how hard you try for it not to. I think it’s natural, as you take in new influences, which I’m always doing,” explained Hummel.

“Over the years, I’ve had inspirations from country, rockabilly, swing, jazz, folk, rock, psychedelic rock, country blues, New Orleans R&B, Southern Soul and West Coast and Chicago Blues, which I always come back to. My bands now are a pool of about 15 or 20 players from around the Bay that I draw on when I’m planning tours. As long as musicians know the language and architecture of this music, I’m fine. I can always present a wonderful show with the right people. We just need a day of rehearsal,” he continued.

Hummel said interest in old school blues is currently experiencing a slight downturn, but he sees it as an opportunity for artists like himself.Blues rock seems to be the rage. Almost nobody is playing old school blues, although a few younger cats like African American guitarists Marquise Knox and Jontavious Willis seem to be slowly catching fire,” he noted. “In the Bay Area, Aki Kumar is making a name for himself, and he’s joining us on our Blowouts this month. The only positive for me is there’s now a real hunger for the true blues, and that’s what the Blowouts present.”

Mark Hummel’s Blues Harmonica Blowout takes place on Friday, Feb. 24 and Saturday, Feb. 25 at 8pm at The Freight and Salvage, 2020 Addison St., Berkeley, 510-644-2020. thefreight.org.

East Bay Express E-edition East Bay Express E-edition