howlin’ for hubert

“Howlin’ For Hubert”
Hubert Sumlin, David Johansen, Levon Helm, Jimmy Vivino and friends
B.B. King’s, NYC, 3-5-05

When the Stones brought Hubert Sumlin onstage at MSG in January 2003, I was surprised — not because I didn’t know who he was, but because I thought he was dead. But, to paraphrase Mark Twain, clearly the rumors of Hubert’s death were greatly exaggerated, and Hubert Sumlin is still very much alive, and one of the remaining great Chicago bluesmen on this planet.

Last Saturday (March 5) at B.B. King’s in NYC was the kind of show that could, well, get me to go to B.B. King’s on a Saturday night: Hubert Sumlin, onstage with David Johansen, Levon Helm, Jimmy Vivino, and a host of other utterly fantastic blues musicians. It was the kind of evening where you actually forgot once or twice that Levon Helm was playing drums, because there was just so much astounding music happening at any given time. The show began with a Howlin’ Wolf tribute, and then moved into a Muddy Waters set after a short intermission.

Who else plays guitar like these veteran bluesmen? No, I mean, really: who else plays guitar like this? You could give me Keef, and I’d buy it up to a point, because it’s a different spirit. Hubert Sumlin plays with a presence and a fluidity and with what deceptively appears to be such an utter lack of effort — watching Hubert onstage Saturday night, it was easy to understand why people would so quickly believe that these men had made a pact with the devil in order to play the way they did.

You watch him play, and ponder: where does that electricity come from? Is it a difference in motivation? Is it generational? Is it simply experiential? Can it just be explained as a gift? It’s another version of what Keith Richards refers to as “the antenna,” except that no one else on the planet picks up the signals that are broadcasted to veteran blues musicians. I’ve seen white boys play the blues, and maybe with some exceptions I’m not knowledgeable enough to be acquainted with (although it would seem if they existed, we would know), and it just isn’t the same thing. Eric Clapton in an Armani suit onstage playing guitar does not even come close to Hubert Sumlin (which isn’t a great example, because I hate Clapton).

When I bought the ticket to this show, I imagined that there would likely be some rotating roster of guest vocalists and other musicians. At no point in my imagination did I think that David Johansen would be onstage, singing, the entire time! After about half a dozen songs, when it became obvious that he wasn’t going anywhere, my jaw hit the floor. David Jo, who is now 100% embracing his Dolls-ness with a fervor that is both charming and infuriating (for those of us who lived through the MTV/Animals medley/short hair-athletic look era), came onstage wearing a black velvet suit and a black silk flowered shirt. He’s the only straight guy in the world who could rock something like that and make it look good (and don’t say the words “Steven Tyler” around here unless you want to get your ass kicked). (To see what I mean, check out these great photos on Jimmy Vivino’s web site.)

I know. He’s a kid from Staten Island who dressed up in drag and sang rock and roll (and, sure, started one of the most influential rock bands of all time). Trust me on this: Johansen can sing the blues. If you’ve seen him in his Harry Smiths incarnation, it’s obvious; if you were lucky enough to see the original concept of Buster Poindexter (before he ruined weddings from now until the dawn of time with “Hot Hot Hot”), then you definitely know. When it all began, the concept was a rhythm and blues revue: Wynonnie Harris. “Rocket 88.” Professor Longhair. Jump blues. “Little Red Rooster.” Chicago blues. Big Joe Turner (who I actually saw when he was doing a residency at Tramps). – those are just some examples of what the original Buster Poindexter shows were all about.

So to me, David’s role tonight is simply the ultimate manifestation of all of that (and heck, even the Dolls – David proclaiming, “The New York Dolls wouldn’t be shit without Hubert Sumlin!” (thus bringing a little product placement to the evening – sorry, call me cynical, and you know what – he’s bloody well entitled to it at this point). But it is there, and not just in the obvious ones (“Pills” or “Don’t Start Me Talkin'”) I also hear it in “Babylon” and “Bad Detective” just as much (the latter rearranged in the Buster days as well).

Oh, yeah, Levon Helm was on that stage (see what I mean)? And Jimmy Vivino is becoming my new favorite band leader-type musician. He’s one of those guys that can get on a stage and hold it together both musically and organizationally, and he has the chops and the knowledge to prove it. He adeptly led the band, with capability and fine spirit to boot, at the 2003 Springsteen Asbury Park Christmas shows (I know, it was technically the Max Weinberg 7, but I was there, and Jimmy did the work) and tonight was no different. He impressed the heck out of me in both instances.

Special guests: yes, of course I was hoping Keith was in town – who wasn’t? But instead, we got Blondie Chaplin and Larry Campbell, who were certainly appropriate and added to the evening (Blondie’s unbridled enthusiasm being of particular note).

As much as I don’t like to experience music in these kinds of touristy, polished places, tonight was an experience well worth making an exception for, and what’s more, the quality of the music transcended it all, making the crowded tables and the drink minimums superflous. And now, at last, I have seen Hubert Sumlin, and can report that he is, indeed, very alive, and very well.

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