[Harp-L] Harmonica Blow-Off

I caught the late set of Mark Hummel's Blues Harmonica Blowout at Yoshi's in Oakland last night, with Billy Branch, Sugar Blue, Carlos Del Junco, and Rod Piazza.  I'm submitting this review to the list, in hopes of stimulating some discussion about these great players, and getting other list members who may have seen this tour to share their thoughts.  

Personally, I was looking forward to hearing Sugar Blue.  He doesn't spend a lot of time on the west coast, and seeing him on a bill with four other harmonica legends was a treat.  In addition, the band featured Oakland's great Rusty Zinn on guitar (of whom I would have liked to have heard considerably more).  

The show got off to an awesome start with Carlos Del Junco's solo version of 'Amazing Grace'.  Carlos acknowledged that his approach was inspired by Howard Levy.  There's a video on youtube of Howard playing a similar arrangement of the 230 year old hymn:  http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ecZz9uJcG-U.  

Carlos appeared to be relying on a collection of electronics for some of his sound.  Unfortunately from where I was sitting I couldn't get a close enough look to identify what he was using, but I heard some kind of loop station in the mix during Carlos's version of 'Got My Mojo Working'.  There were a number of specialty harp amps on the stage, including an Avenger and two Harp Kings.  Surprisingly, it looked like everybody (except Piazza) was playing through the same amp (it might have been the avenger - but it was hard to be sure).  Hummel had to switch out various sets of pedals and other apparatus between each set, an arrangement that (IMHO) didn't allow some the players (particularly Branch) to really show off their signature sounds.  

One of the problems with the all-star lineup was that each artist was allotted  just two songs before having to give up the stage to the next performer.  I'd have liked to hear more of Carlos's innovative approach to the harmonica.  Although Billy Branch's stage presence was completely infectious, and he played well, the band was clearly under-rehearsed.  At the end of Branch's set, I overheard Hummel joking 'Well, I guess they'll have that song down by tomorrow night.'   

But for me, the biggest contrast of the night was between Sugar Blue and Rod Piazza.  Sugar, predictably, set the place on fire.  His hurricane of notes has always reminded me of John Coltrane, and tonight was no exception.  It was clear that many in the crowd had not heard him before.  As I looked around the room I saw plenty of faces with mouths hanging open in obvious astonishment at what they were hearing.  Some people on this list have complained about Sugar's emphasis on speed, but even his critics have to admit that seconds into a Sugar Blue solo, you know exactly who you're listening to.  His playing is unique, and his tone is instantly recognizable.  

Rod Piazza on the other hand takes a much more derivative approach to the blues.  When he played chromatic on James Cotton's "Black Night", you could close your eyes, forget you were listening to Piazza and imagine that it was Cotton himself on stage.  Similarly, his cover of Little Walter's "That's It" sounded so much like Walter that you could almost hear the scratches being carved into the vinyl.  Rod's use of the pair of harp-kings with no pedals or electronics served this approach well.  It's a legitimate approach to the blues, although personally I'm finding that it's not 'my cup of tea', at last not as much as it used to be.  What Piazza and Branch do is neither better nor worse than what Carlos or Sugar do - it's just different.  

It may have been my imagination, but I got the impression that there may have been some clash of egos back stage.  For example, when Piazza took the stage after Sugar Blue's set, he appeared to forget Sugar's name, ("I want to thank the wonderful... Um, the other people in tonight's show"). So overall, it was a night of contrasts - with Carlos and Sugar providing the innovative sparks, while Branch and Piazza settled into more traditional grooves.  Whichever apprach is your preference, there's a lot recommend this tour.  The Blow-Out will be in California for the next week or so.  Hummel's web site has them in Chico on Jan 17, Santa Cruz on the 18th, and Redondo Beach on Jan 20.  


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