Born to Blow 

Mark Hummel's Blues Harmonica Blowout returns to Yoshi's.

Keeping a blues band on the road, playing a different town each night, was never a piece of cake, but it's gotten a whole lot tougher than it used to be, says Mark Hummel. The blues vocalist and harmonica virtuoso has been doing it for half his 52 years. He and his three-man backing band, the Blues Survivors, spent 120 days traveling in a van last year, down from 160 days a few years earlier.

"The price of gas has driven a lot of people off the road," Hummel says over a hamburger and fries at Val's Burgers near his home in Castro Valley. "I'm one of the few guys still going out. You've gotta eat the loss, or you've gotta find a festival or whatever that'll pay you the extra dough."

At least he has less competition from guys his age. "People like Rod Piazza and Little Charlie don't do band tours anymore, but there are so many young kids that will go out there and do it, even if they have to pay to play," he adds. "I've had clubs try to talk me into doing stuff like that, but I never would. That's totally against my principles. I'd rather play on the street. I've been doing the road for so long, it's hard to imagine doing anything else."

Touring can also be hazardous to a musician's love life. It was a major factor in the breakup of Hummel's first marriage, which he chronicled in his 1995 CD Married to the Blues. "That was my divorce album," he quips. He and his second wife, Alexis, have been together twelve years, married four. "She's become my manager," he says. "I've got her involved."

Indian casinos and blues cruises has helped to keep Hummel and company in the chips. He just completed seven days on the Caribbean with the Legendary Rhythm & Blues Cruise as one of 23 acts on a bill that also included Taj Mahal, Irma Thomas, Charlie Musselwhite, Roomful of Blues, and Tommy Castro. The Blues Survivors were joined on their segments by two other harmonica masters — J. Geils Band alumnus Magic Dick and Chicago veteran Billy Branch — in a scaled-down edition of Mark Hummel's Blues Harmonica Blowout.

The Blues Harmonica Blowout, now in its seventeenth year, has become Hummel's main calling card. The annual event transformed him from being just one among many of the most respected harmonica cats on the blues highway into host of the hottest harmonica summit meeting on the planet.

Hummel's first blowout was a modest affair: one night at Ashkenaz featuring Portland chromatic harmonica phenomenon Paul deLay and several Bay Area blowers. It soon expanded to other Northern California venues and eventually went national, with a constantly changing cast starring some of the biggest names in the mouth harp business, including Musselwhite, James Cotton, and former War member Lee Oskar. Electro-Fi, the Toronto label for which Hummel records, is planning the September release of a retrospective of blowouts at Moe's Alley in Santa Cruz and Yoshi's in Oakland. Titled Still Here and Gone: 1994-2007, the CD will feature still-living musicians Oskar, Magic Dick, Johnny Dyer, and Lazy Lester, along with now-deceased players deLay, Carey Bell, William Clarke, and Snooky Pryor.

The first time Hummel brought the blowout to Yoshi's, on a Monday in January of 2000, both shows sold out. He's been doing Fridays and Saturdays there every January since, and this year the Oakland club has added Sunday. The 2008 Northern California winter tour features John Mayall, Lazy Lester, Kenny Neal, and former Jimmy Buffett sideman Fingers Taylor.

Hummel had been trying to book Mayall, the English bluesman whose bands in the 1960s included such players as Eric Clapton, Jack Bruce, Mick Fleetwood, and John McVie, for more than a year. Calls to Mayall's agent went unreturned. They finally met in May at the Blues Awards in Memphis and would have played together if the show hadn't been running overtime. Mayall, who is 74, insisted on being in bed before midnight.

"I asked him if he'd be interested in doing the blowout with me in California," Hummel explains. "He said, 'It sounds like fun. E-mail me.' We worked it out. It really wasn't a big deal."

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