Hubert Sumlin is one of the living legends of the blues, having served as Howlin' Wolf's guitarist for nearly 25 years up to Wolf's death in 1976. Sumlin's signature guitar style has been revered and emulated by some of the greatest guitarists in the world, including Eric Clapton, Jimi Hendrix and Stevie Ray Vaughan. Sumlin's work with Howlin' Wolf was so prized that in 1956, Muddy Waters offered Sumlin three times what Wolf was paying him just to get Sumlin to join his band. After a grueling 41 date tour with Waters, Sumlin decided to return to Wolf's band. Wolf took Sumlin back with open arms, telling his arch rival, "He is my guitarist. I just lent him to you!" Now in his 60's, Sumlin's musical career still thrives and includes several Grammy nominations for his recent work with other blues luminaries such as Pinetop Perkins.
On one of my regular visits to South Florida, I was lucky enough to catch Hubert Sumlin's show with The Sean Chambers Band at the BamBoo Room in Lake Worth, Florida. Although it was a bit of a drive from my hotel in Fort Lauderdale, it was more than worth the trip to get an opportunity to see this great and gracious gentleman perform. On a beautiful Saturday evening, Sumlin was backed by the Tampa-based, Sean Chambers Band, featuring the impressive guitar work of Sean Chambers who has been touted by many as the next big thing in blues/rock guitar.
Following an opening set by delta blues house musician, Keith B. Brown, The Sean Chambers Band took the stage, sans Sumlin, for their first set. The set featured songs from Chamber's latest CD on Vestige Records, "Strong Temptation" (VSTG-0815) and some excellent cover tunes. Chambers' guitar work revealed influences from a number of guitarists, including Stevie Ray Vaughan, Johnny Winter and Jimi Hendrix. What has set Chambers apart from the "wannabes" however is the fact that he has incorporated these influences into his own style, rather than trying to mimic them. His set included covers from his heroes such as "Red House" and "Johnny Guitar," as well as originals like "Who's Wrong," from his CD. The set included an excellent version of Albert King's, "Born Under A Bad Sign," with some interesting twists and solos from Chambers, as well as solos from his bass player and drummer.
Following intermission, Chambers and company again took the stage; this time as the backing band for the venerable Hubert Sumlin. Because Chambers' style is a bit more rock-oriented, I was curious to hear how he would blend with Sumlin's quirky blues style. Surprisingly, the fit turned out to be perfect, with Chambers adapting to Sumlin, and Sumlin feeding off of the strengths of the band. As I listened to Sumlin's set, which was predictably heavy on the material that he performed with Howlin' Wolf, I concluded that this was the absolute best that I had heard him perform live in the past few years. He thrived on the work of his backing band and the obvious adoration of the packed house at The BamBoo Room.
One of the highlights of Sumlin's extended set included his opening number, "Killing Floor." Decked out in a snappy beige suit and hat, Sumlin set the tone for the evening with his brief, sharp bursts of lead guitar scattered through the song. His second number, "300 Pounds Of Heavenly Joy," a song clearly referring to his former giant of a boss, was well done and somewhat humorous since Sumlin is lucky if he weighs 140 pounds, fully clothed and soaking wet.
Since few of the songs contained long, extended solos, Sumlin and the band were able to pack a lot of songs into the 90+ minute set. Classics like "Sitting On Top Of The World," "Little Red Rooster," "Spoonful" and "Howlin' For My Darlin'" were nailed by Sumlin who was definitely ON (and I am told even better than he was on the first night of the two night stand at The BamBoo Room). On a few songs, most notably, "Smokestack Lightning" and "Evil," Sumlin did some extended soloing, demonstrating the versatility and spontaneity that characterize his guitar playing.
Before I knew it, Sumlin was finished with one of the shortest 90 minute sets that I have ever experienced. However, rather than feeling disappointed, I was thrilled to have gotten another chance to see and talk to Hubert again. I was even more fortunate in that I would very likely be seeing Hubert again the following weekend with harpman Little Hatch at the Kansas City Blues and Jazz Festival.
I love the classic blues performers and relish every opportunity that I get to see any of them perform. Hubert's history and personality put him at the top of my list of people that I want to see perform whenever the opportunity presents itself. It was a great show and one that I will remember for a long time.
NOTE: If you visit South Florida and get the opportunity, visit The BamBoo Room. It is one of the nicest blues clubs in the country and its proprietor, Russell Hibbard, is committed to preserving the history of the blues by booking some of the best acts in the genre, including some of the legends of the blues. To find out about upcoming shows at The BamBoo Room, visit their website at www.bamboorm.com.
This review is copyright © 2000 by Dave "Doc" Piltz, and Blues On Stage, all rights reserved. Copy, duplication or download prohibited without written permission. For permission to use this review please send an E-mail to Ray Stiles.