Hubert Sumlin at StageOne
December 17, 2010
Such was Hubert Sumlin’s musicianship that Howlin’ Wolf brought him to Chicago in 1954 for the express purpose of them recording together at Chess. The result? “The Red Rooster”, “Back Door Man”, “Evil”, “Wang Dang Doodle” – the way they played Willie Dixon’s songs became the blueprint for rock & roll.
The Nighthawks, a Washington, DC-based group opened and also served as Sumlin’s backing band. They know when to swell and when to fade into the background, serving the elder bluesman well. Their version of Tom Waits’ “Way Down In The Hole” and A3s “Woke Up This Morning” from The Sopranos were part of an excellent warm up. Immaculately attired in a black suit and fedora, Sumlin ambles onto the stage. His gait slightly stiff and wheeling out an oxygen tank, an indicator of the health problems that have dogged him in recent years. The chilly temperatures outdoors can’t have helped any.
Opening with a song by another former employer, Muddy Waters’ “I’m Ready”, it’s clear why Sumlin has been revered by every guitarist from Jimi Hendrix to Jimmy Page. On a confessional “It’s My Own Fault”, he stroked and flicked at the notes; his two hands seemingly at cross purposes, yet sounded perfect. Going for broke on a tumbledown version of “Spoonful”, then hell-bent on “Howlin’ For My Darlin’”. He remained seated throughout and was clearly ailing, but his show was a triumph of spirit over adversity.
StageOne has great sound and only holds a couple hundred, but even working on one lung Sumlin was able to blow the roof off the place, with a set that allowed him to slip out from behind Wolf’s enormous shadow.
In the book Rollin’ and Tumblin’, Sumlin told writer Jim Kent “No way I’m gonna retire. I’m gonna be out there doin’ this stuff just like Muddy Waters, Wolf and the rest of them. I’m gonna die in this stuff, cause I’m dedicated.” Hubert Sumlin is pushing eighty, so you can’t argue with him.