Blues Music Now! concerts

Hubert Sumlin

Hubert Sumlin

Marquette Park,
Wednesday, July 8, 1998

Hubert Sumlin at Marquette Park
(Photo by Steve Sharp)

By Steve Sharp

The old saying, "The best things in life are free," held true Wednesday evening at Marquette Park in downtown Milwaukee.

It was at that scenic location along with the Milwaukee River that a crowd of approximately 200 was treated to a gratis performance by former Howlin Wolf guitarist Hubert Sumlin. Sumlin's performance served as the kick-off to the city's River Rhythms summer concert series.

Sumlin, a resident of Milwaukee since 1989, was backed during his performance by Milwaukee veterans the Leroy Airmaster blues band. And in contrast to their disastrous Summerfest outing with Sumlin one week earlier -- in which the usually good-natured Sumlin could be seen pacing, infuriated, backstage at show's end -- Airmaster's supporting role at River Rhythms was a success. The band and Sumlin melded on several Wolf classics, as well as newer material, including Sumlin's "I'm Coming Home," from his critically-acclaimed Acoustic Sounds CD of this year, "I Know You."

With the setting sun in their eyes, Sumlin and the Airmaster band seemed to feel their way cautiously through the evening's brief, first set, which was marred slightly by equipment problems.

In the second set, however, the soft-voiced Sumlin took charge, calling on the band for tough support on his enthusiastic renditions of Wolf's "Killing Floor" and "Little Red Rooster." On the latter, a song rarely performed by Sumlin, it was apparent just how much the late Wolf owed Sumlin for helping him create his signature sound. As he did behind Wolf in the old days, Sumlin darted about the fretboard of his instrument with a beautiful, fascinating unpredictability. Sumlin, a charming, dapper man, used his expressive body and face to add emphasis to the sounds that burst from his guitar.

The all-too-brief evening came to a close at dusk, with Sumlin using his inimitably quirky vocal and instrumental timing to interpret another Wolf classic, "Smokestack Lightnin'."

At the age of 64, Sumlin is riding a creative crest in his career. Since the beginning of this year, he has, amazingly, seen the release of three albums of new material for the Blues Planet, Acoustic Sounds and Telarc labels. He recently completed another full recording session for Telarc with Pinetop Perkins. The results of that session are planned for release on the Cleveland, Ohio-based label in October. Sumlin has also been playing live frequently, with a tour of Japan planned in the coming months.

Sumlin's River Rhythms performance Wednesday was perhaps his last in the U.S. before he leaves for the overseas tour. If it was, he'll be departing the U.S. on a high note.

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