As we waited with anticipation for the show to start I heard several non-blues fans ask who is this Hubert Sumlin and is he worth staying to hear. Well, in case you don't already know, Hubert was the man behind the searing, slash and burn guitar on legendary blues singer Howling Wolf's classics such as "Killing Floor" and "Wang Dang Doodle." He spent over 20 years as Wolf's favorite lead guitarist, and also spent a year with Muddy Waters. He has influenced two generations of blues and rock guitarists, among them Jimi Hendrix, Eric Clapton, and Keith Richards. In January, in his comeback following serious surgery last October, he opened for The Rolling Stones in their show at Madison Square Gardens. He recently returned from a tour of Europe where he was a featured artist among the touring blues acts from the U.S. And at 71 he can still make his axe howl, snarl, growl, or sweetly ripple out with beautiful, soulful guitar licks that lull you into false security before he unpredictably blows it up with his powerful licks. So that's why you should see Hubert any chance you get.
Backed by The Butanes, Hubert wowed the crowd all night with his great guitar playing and strong, husky, passionate vocals. Yet it was in the second set where he hit his stride and really showed what he can do. Starting with "Killing Floor" Hubert played slashing, stinging licks, first sitting down to play, and then standing up to play side by side with Butanes lead guitarist Curt Obeda. Since as Hubert pointed out, he only has one lung now, he gets short of breath so he cannot handle vocals like he has in the past. Bass player Jon Lindberg did a great job getting low and gritty on vocals, doing his best Howling Wolf. Hubert showed his, slow soulful style on the beautiful blues grinder, "Louise." He makes it look so easy and sound so great: one full, rich beautiful chord after another smoothly rippling off his guitar. Curt added strong vocals with feeling and grit, as well as his own solid, expressive guitar playing.
Hubert handled the vocals on "Red Rooster" in his strong, husky voice. After playing the guitar intro, he concentrated on singing and inserting some stinging, quick-hitting licks to punctuate Curt's solid lead guitar playing. All the while Rob Stupka on drums and Jon on bass provided the tight, steady rhythm that only veteran, talented players can make seem easy. Throughout the night Hubert seemed to feed off the crowd's energy and enthusiasm for his playing, rewarding them with great jangling guitar licks, picking on the back beat, and filling in with stinging, slashing riffs. On his guitar solos Hubert dealt out full, rich chords with passion and soul. His great ringing, repeating guitar licks were beautiful for both the eye to see and the ear to hear. Hubert loves the blues, loves being a musician, and loves his fans. He seems to be enjoying himself as much as all the sweaty dancers and hard core blues fans in attendance. Wouldn't be nice to enjoy your job as long and as much as Hubert does when he plays the blues?
After a short final set, The Butanes and Hubert started to leave the stage. The fans packed on the dance floor the last few songs to appreciate the music up close shouted, cheered, and begged for more. Hubert hesitated, protested weakly, and then sat down to play solo. He who hesitates is lost, or has to play longer. He introduced the song, "I Love You Baby" as the first blues song he ever played. The combination of Hubert's slow, rubbing-blues beat guitar and husky vocals was as basic and as heart-felt as the blues can be. Moments like this hit you like a body blow, moving you in ways you may never have been before. Instead of stopping there, he launched into a short version of Muddy Waters' "I'm a Man." Playing with attitude and singing in his husky voice, he was joined mid-song by Curt on guitar. Despite the late hour, Hubert's guitar had lost none of the sting, snarl, or quick darting and twisting that is his unique style. Hubert closed out this memorable blues experience with a short version of "Got My Mojo Working" to the loud and passionate applause of the crowd.
During his breaks and after the show Hubert was gracious and generous with his time to his fans, signing autographs, posing for pictures, and telling stories. Sitting back stage, still looking sharp, stylish and fresh in his neat suit and fedora, Hubert chatted with Curt Obeda and a few fans. Curt laughed and said "Hubert, I've heard you play on $20,000 guitars and $20 guitars and you always sound the same. I guess it must be the guitar player and not the guitar." Never a truer word has been spoken about the incredible guitar playing talent of Hubert Sumlin: any guitar in his hands is capable of blues magic. Hubert told us to be on the look out for a CD project he is doing with an old friend, which he expects to have out this summer. Hubert is headlining at the Prairie Dog Blues Festival the last weekend in July. Hopefully he'll come back soon to wow us with his brilliant blues guitar.
The folks at Whiskey do a great job keeping the show moving along from artist to artist without a hitch. The artists help by being ready to jump on stage and get started right away. This showcase series give the fans and musicians a chance to hear, see, appreciate and visit with many of the talented blues artists we have in the Twin Cities. Be sure to look for the blues guitar show in June!
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