Carrying the Torch 

Mark Hummel's annual harmonica fest vies for a little R-E-S-P-E-C-T.

You might call the blues harmonica the Rodney Dangerfield of instruments: It don't get no respect. Bluesmen from Muddy Waters to Robert Cray (and rockers from the Beatles to Dylan) have all made splendid use of the harp, but even giants like Little Walter, James Cotton, and Sonny Terry remain relatively unknown. It's a situation local giant Mark Hummel has railed against all his life, and the reason behind his Fifteenth Annual Blues Harmonica Blowout, which invades Yoshi's this weekend.

"You don't hear the blues on the radio anymore," Hummel laments from his home in Castro Valley. "You might hear the harp on an oldies station, but it's likely to be on a track by War or the J. Geils Band, two bands I loved when I was a kid just getting into the blues."

If you can't beat 'em, blow with 'em. For this year's extravaganza, Hummel salutes (and plays with) Lee Oskar and Magic Dick, harpmen from War and the J. Geils Band respectively. "It's great to be onstage with the guys who inspired me when I was learning how to play," he says. Jerry Portnoy, longtime Muddy Waters Band harpist and Eric Clapton cohort, rounds out the bill.

Hummel's annual event has come a long way since its humble beginnings at Berkeley's Ashkenaz club in 1991. "I had me, Rick Estrin from Little Charlie and the Nightcats, and Dave Wellhausen, who's more into bluegrass these days," he recalls. "It was a Sunday night, and we had about two hundred people. [Late Ashkenaz owner] David Nadel said we should do this again next year, and it's just grown on its own. In the last fifteen years I've had every harmonica player that's still around onstage. I aim for an eclectic show mixing older and younger players, black and white. This one is called Superstars of the Blues Harmonica, although it could be called Rock Stars of the Blues Harmonica, since Lee and Dick both sold millions of records and were in superstar bands."

Although the shows are a lot of fun while quietly educating people about the history of the blues harmonica, Hummel says it still takes lots of hard work to get things together, especially since he's hitting the road this year, with six out-of-town California dates as well as their three-day stand at Yoshi's. "I just bought a new van for the tour that I have to customize," he notes. "I also have to book the hotels and the gigs and hire a publicist to do the press. I'm the booker, road manager, bandleader, and one of the harmonica players. I wear a lot of hats." Thankfully, each one he wears earns Hummel and his instrument of choice a little more respect.

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