Mark Hummel has been the ringleader of a traveling circus for 18 years now. A circus more intent on getting you to boogie than anything else — Hummel’s Blues Harmonica Blowout has, for the better part of two decades, been visiting towns and cities all over the country, rocking crowds with some straight-up, down and dirty, harmonica-heavy blues.
The Blowout will make its first-ever Bangor stop on Thursday, Oct. 8, with a 7 p.m. show at the Bangor Opera House. This particular lineup features Hummel and fellow harp-masters Sugar Ray Norcia, Billy Branch and Lee Oskar, with guitarist Rusty Zinn, though the lineup changes depending on the tour.
Eighteen years, and Hummel is far from road-weary. In fact, he loves it more than ever.
“The two most fun things are the reactions I get from audiences, and the fact that I get to hang out with harmonica players all the time,” said Hummel. “I always love how much people enjoy the shows, and I love to be with harp players, trading stories and telling lies. It’s a great gig.”
Hummel got his start in California, playing a style of blues that’s equal parts traditional Chicago style and jump blues. Since the 1980s, he has fronted the Blues Survivors, touring North America and Europe virtually nonstop for 10 years, performing with greats such as Charlie Musselwhite and Brownie McGhee. Even now, he plays between 120 and 150 shows every year. Practice makes perfect, though.
“It’s definitely the kind of thing that if you don’t do it for a while, you can tell,” said
Hummel. “You’ve always got to practice, on whatever instrument you play. You’ve always got to come up with new stuff. And it’s always challenging.”
Since 1991, Hummel has gathered together some the best harp players in the country for the annual Blues Harmonica Blowout tour, an event he personally produces. Known in blues circles as a who’s who of blues harmonica masters, the Blowout has featured such greats as Musselwhite, James Cotton, Norton Buffalo, Kim Wilson, Huey Lewis (yes, that Huey Lewis), Magic Dick (from the J. Geils Band), Carey Bell, Billy Boy Arnold, Rod Piazza, Rick Estrin, Paul deLay, Snooky Pryor and many more.
As simple as it may seem, the harmonica is a very versatile instrument. Besides the many techniques available for actually playing it, there are multitudes of effects a player can put on a harp to change up the sound a little — reverb, distortion, even a wah pedal. There are lot of possibilities for an instrument that was invented by the Chinese around 1000 A.D., and became popular in America as a portable means of entertainment for Civil War soldiers.
“I always find new and interesting things about it,” said Hummel. “That’s why I love playing these shows — everyone has a different style and perspective on it.”
A little-known fact about harmonicas is that the vast majority of them are made in Germany — Hohner and Seydell are the biggest manufacturers, both of which have been making the instrument since the mid-18th century. Hummel has partnered with Seydell, so he gets a special deal on their harmonicas.
“I play pretty hard, so I go through a lot of harmonicas,” said Hummel. “It’s nice to have as many as I need at my disposal.”
As for some younger harmonica players, Hummel mentions a phenom who hails from, of course, Maine. Jason Ricci, a Portland native who now makes his home in Memphis, is on the cutting edge of blues music — he looks like a punk rocker, but he plays a mean harp.
“He is the talk of the town. I met him in Idaho, and in Maine, and he’s just incredible,” said Hummel. “He’s an overblower, which means he bends every single note. He’s really something.”
Like the name of his other band, Hummel is a blues survivor. You don’t tour for nearly 30 years if you don’t love what you’re doing — and the blues, like any good relationship, is one that you have to put as much into as what you’ll get out of it.
Mark Hummel’s Blues Harmonica Blowout will play at 7 p.m. Thursday, Oct. 8, at the Bangor Opera House. Tickets are available at the box office.