A Life in the Blues, From Oakland to Memphis 

John Németh returns to The Town to join Mark Hummel’s Blues Harmonica Blowout.

click to enlarge PHOTO COURTESY OF JOHN NEMETH
  • Photo courtesy of John Nemeth

Mark Hummel was one of the Oakland musicians who helped John Németh kick start his career after he moved to the Bay Area from Boise in 2004.

"I've been a friend of Mark's for a long time," the venerable blues singer said from his current home in Memphis. "He was one of the few blues artists that ever played in Idaho. When I moved to Oakland, he helped me feel at home. He introduced me to a lot of great players and those musicians took me in and made it possible for me to make a home, and a living, immediately on moving there."

The old friends will reunite back in Oakland on March 22 when Németh joins Hummel on stage at Yoshi's for a special spring edition of his Blues Harmonica Blowout.

"Oakland had a lot of clubs, a lot of blues musicians and so many folks who knew so much about the blues and soul," Németh recalled. "It was like living in a Southern city, culture-wise. There are great barbecue and soul food restaurants and the rich East Bay Grease history. I miss Oakland a lot and try to get back and play there as much as possible. When Mark contacted me about joining this year's Blowout, I was really excited to do it. I've done a couple of them before and he always gets the best players around for the line up. It's an honor to be a part of it."

This edition of the Blowout will feature vocalist/harp player Curtis Salgado, Aki Kumar, who brings a Bollywood approach to the blues and newcomer Andrew Alli. The backing band, Hummel's Golden State Lone Star Revue, includes A-list players Anson Funderburg on guitar, guitarist Mike Keller, bass player R. W. Grigsby and drummer Wes Starr.

"We don't rehearse; we just get up on stage and have some fun and make some magic happen," Németh said. "We'll each play a couple of our own tunes and close the evening with a big jam session."

This band has the feel of a homecoming for Németh. "A lot of the players tie into my history of playing in the Bay Area and Oakland. Anson gave me one of my first shots at fame. He asked me to fill in for Sam Meyers, the legendary harp player, in his band. I went down to Texas to join that band for a while and, while I was playing with them, Blind Pig Records signed me to a recording contract. Anson produced my first record and Wes Starr was the drummer on that album. I've toured with Wes in my band on and off over the years and the bass player, R. W. Grisby, is the bass man from the childhood band Wes had back in Georgia, when he was starting out."

Before he moved to Memphis, Németh made three albums for San Francisco's Blind Pig logo and became a major player on the local scene. "It just got too expensive to stay in Oakland," he said. "They were doing the big lockdowns of the neighborhood and there was lots of crime. My daughter was three at the time and my tours kept me away from home for long periods. My wife asked if I could be around more, but I didn't think I could afford to do it, unless we moved someplace in the center of the country. I said, 'Let's try Memphis.' We went out to visit, she loved it and two weeks later, we were living here."

After moving to Memphis, Németh continued touring and building a name for himself. He also started his own label, Memphis Grease. "I wanted to have creative freedom," Németh said "A lot of labels want music locked into time tested traditions, but we're far from the '20s, when they started recording the blues." Németh said he likes to bring a little a hip-hop and rock into his music, rhythmically, vocally and melodically. "If you're around during certain decades, you'll get these influences in your music. They just filter in, but it all comes back to the blues. Blues can be played over any sort of rhythm and it has adapted itself over the decades, as well as influencing pop culture and music. I listen to everything, but the blues is still my favorite style of music."

John Németh is one of the featured artists with Mark Hummel's Blues Harmonica Blowout: Wednesday, May 22, 8 and 10 p.m., 8 p.m. show $27-64, 10 p.m. show $27, Yoshi's, 510 Embarcadero West, Jack London Square, Oakland, Yoshis.com.

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