NEW YORK: Howlin' For Hubert Concert Review - by J. Blake

Posted on 12/01/2009 by J. Blake

On Tuesday night, November 24th, New York City blues fans were treated to a program of music titled “Howlin’ for Hubert” at B.B. King’s Bar & Grill in Time Square. New York Dolls front-man David Johanson and legendary blues guitarist Hubert Sumlin, led a band of solid professionals through two sets of authentic electric blues that paid tribute to one of the genre’s most beloved and respected figures and Sumlin’s former employer for over 20 years, Mr. Chester Burnett a.k.a. Howlin’ Wolf.

Sumlin, who celebrated his 78th birthday the night of the performance (though his birthday was actually on the 16th), could easily be called “long in the tooth” and is unfortunately past his prime. The elderly bluesman’s singing voice is not exactly strong, which is not helped by the fact that he now operates with only one lung. His fingers don’t quite move with the fluidity that they once did and on more then one occasion, Johanson had to notify him that he was playing in the wrong key. However, with all that said, he came across as very charming and funny and he commanded the stage with a vigor that the rest of us will surely envy when we’re his age. He is a veteran and a legend and despite the negatives, it was a thrill to see him perform in such a small venue.

Johanson, not really a “bluesman” by trade, was clearly the conductor of the group; calling out songs and keys, choosing what musician should solo and where they should do it, etc. His stage presence is probably a little too flamboyant for some blues fans, but it is entertaining and it compliments the shear comedic irony of a wafer-thin glam-punk rocker singing Wolf classics like Built For Comfort (I Ain’t Built for Speed) and 300 Pounds of Joy. His larger than life persona and the “unpleasant” gravely quality of his voice, surprisingly make him the perfect candidate to carry the Howlin’ Wolf torch. I can’t imagine too many front-men being able to pull off the material as well as he does.

The band itself was clearly made up of experienced professionals. Unfortunately it was also quite clear that this was not a band that plays together regularly; but instead a group of hired guns called in for the evening. They lacked the tightness that comes from taking the stage together as a band night after night. Though great blues is sometimes played with a certain tastefully executed looseness, the music of this particular evening was at times perhaps a little too loose; featuring a few too many sloppy intros and missed endings. From experience, I’m aware that such things happen from time to time, but for a group of musicians of that caliber, charging the cover that they were charging, these kinds of mistakes should be kept to an absolute minimum.

Now as many of you are muttering to yourself “the nerve of this guy”, referring to my negative comments, I assure you that I only call it as I see it. I have seen Hubert Sumlin play before and this particular evening was not one of his better performances, but despite all the mistakes and all the negatives (not all of which can be attributed solely to the blues legend), it was a very enjoyable night of blues music. Though Sumlin and Johanson have been working together for a few years now, the pairing is still unique to say the least and a program of almost exclusively Howlin’ Wolf classics is both rare and a welcome treat. It was far from the best show I’ve ever seen, but it was fun and I would certainly recommend seeing this unlikely duo to all blues lovers.

*If you enjoyed this article, you may also enjoy: Psychedelic Blues Power

Copyright © 2009 - J. Blake. All Rights Reserved.
*Live Photos: Copyright © 2009 - Nelson G. Onofre. All Rights Reserved.

American Blues News Staff

What makes American Blues News unique is our coverage across America. Here is our lineup:

Mon: Memphis Correspondent - Robert "Nighthawk" Tooms
Nighthawk is our resident globetrotter and man behind the scenes, as he tours with the Reba Russell Band.

Tues: New York Correspondent - J. Blake
Blake is the American Blues News review and interview guru. You may catch him out and about in NY playing the blues.

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