Various Artists – Mark Hummel Proudly Presents East Bay Blues Vaults 1976-1988
Electro-Fi Records – 2021
22 tracks; 1:17:57
Harmonica player and singer Mark Hummel documents the East Bay blues scene via Mark Hummel Proudly Presents East Bay Blues Vaults 1976-1988, a compilation of rare performances and 45s that provides a fun blues-tinted window across time and space.
Hummel came to Berkeley in 1974, right after graduating high school. He was hitchhiking cross-country and stopped when he found a blues environment that he liked. The legendary Bob Corritore, another harmonica player, heard tale of Hummel’s stash of recordings and suggested he release them for everyone to hear. Hummel doesn’t appear on every track, but he’s on many, giving you an appreciation for his personal harmonica style, which isn’t flashy, but which propels all of the songs. The collection also serves as an introduction to lesser-known blues artists from the Berkeley scene.
For instance, “Look Out for Sonny Rhodes,” showcases the titular singer’s strong voice, which practically distorts on its own. The track, recorded in 1977, sounds even older, his band, sans Hummel, laying down an easy blues groove that leaves plenty of respectful space for Rhodes vocals and guitar. Rhodes appears again on “It Won’t Rain in California,” a wonderful—and unknown—horn section giving the tune an uptown lilt, while still keeping things down home.
Mississippi Johnny Waters is another revelation. Born Johnny Sandifer, he changed his surname to honor a certain blues artist. Waters and Hummel formed a band called the Blues Survivors, which played out four or five days a week for half a decade. Waters voice bares a sonic resemblance to his Muddy namesake, as does the band’s sound, which is old school Chicago blues. Hummel’s harmonica shines on “I Can’t Hang,” purring through the song, but also hitting some high notes for contrast.
The Ron Thompson Trio is also a fun discovery. “I’m Shakin'” has a jolly rhythm-and-blues bounce with a hint of 1980s funk, foreshadowing from a track recorded in 1978. Paris Slim’s “Stranded” is a leisurely uptown blues with Nancy Wright providing backing sax that sounds like an entire horn section.
These are solid songs from interesting artists. And not just that, but artists who aren’t household names. But the real fun of this collection is flipping between the tracks and notes, learning who is (and was) who. Hummel provides lovely liner notes which are part East Bay blues history and part personal essay. In fact, they’re so good, I’d strongly encourage anyone interested in the album to make sure they get a physical copy. If you missed out on this scene, or want to relive it, Hummel has you covered.