Celebrating Sonny Boy II At The Annual Big Room Blues Harp Blowout



As blues aficionados know, there were two great musicians who bore the name Sonny Boy Williamson. One of those blues harp players died in 1948, and the other carried on his legacy until his harmonica was, in turn, silenced in 1965.

Lots of the young white guys inspired by those seminal harp players are long gone. But John Mayall, the Brit blues giant who turned a generation of music lovers on to the blues, is going to be in Chico tomorrow night, carrying the torch lit by blues harp players down on the Mississippi delta and on the South Side of Chicago before the needle first came down on the vinyl that ignited Mayall’s lifelong celebration of sounds created a long way from London.

The late Norton Buffalo, harmonica player extraordinaire, once told me that the instrument he played was actually pretty simple, and easy to play. I was a little dashed to learn that. I’d spent years assaulting the ears of late-night guests at parties by attempting to accompany blues albums, so when Mr. Buffalo declared that the harp ain’t hard to play, I was a bit downcast because I never did get good at playing it. Had I not been inebriated at those parties, I wouldn’t have exposed my musical ineptitude to my friends. Luckily, most of them were usually wasted, too, so some of them still tell me I sounded pretty good.

But no one needs to be drunk to appreciate the sounds created by the harp players Mark Hummel brings to the Sierra Nevada Big Room each year with his rotating troupe that always includes the best blues harp players around.

Which explains why tomorrow night’s show is sold out. Butte County blues lovers have made a tradition of kicking off the year by showing up at Hummel’s shows because they know that he’s a top notch player in his own right, and that he always showcases masters of the instrument when he ramps up for each new “blowout” tour.

In addition to John Mayall, the guy who gave Eric Clapton his first gig, this year’s line up includes Curtis Salgado and Rick Estrin. Estrin, as blues fans know, is the rather astonishing guy who played and sang with Little Charlie and the Night Cats for years, and now fronts that band. Little Charlie Baty, himself, will also be on hand for tomorrow night’s show, lending his signature guitar licks to all those harp players who will be channeling the spirit of Sonny Boy II for blues fans who weren’t around when the template for blues harp was being laid down.

Chances are good that Bob Littell will also join those other harp players for a song or two, as he’s done in the past. And it wouldn’t surprise me if blues great and Paradise ridge resident Lazy Lester didn’t also show up to share a lick or two. I, however, will modestly refrain from sharing that stage with guys who can actually play the instrument I’ve only played at playing.

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