things are worth waiting for. Such was the case on Dec. 17 at the
Fairfield Theatre Company in downtown Fairfield as The Nighthawks
performed for nearly an hour before blues legend Hubert Sumlin took to
the stage with the Washington, D.C.-based band.
Nighthawks are quality musicians in their own right, but it was Sumlin -
the longtime guitarist for Howlin’ Wolf - who everyone came to see. The
Nighthawks’ 13 songs without Sumlin was sort of a tease, a buildup to
the reveal of a blues great whose licks on those old Howlin’ Wolf songs
had an impact on, among others, Keith Richards, Eric Clapton, Jimi
Hendrix and Led Zeppelin’s Jimmy Page. In fact, no less a guitar god
than Hendrix once said Sumlin was his favorite guitarist.
79-year-old Sumlin, who now gets around with an oxygen tank after having
undergone lung removal surgery in 2004, had some assistance as he walked
to his chair at stage left, but once he settled down and put his guitar
over his neck, it was like he was a young man again. He has fingers that
are meant to play the guitar and they move effortlessly around the
fretboard. Also, there is an expressiveness to Sumlin’s playing that is
often lacking in other guitarists’ work, perhaps because Sumlin listened
when Howlin’ Wolf recommended ditching the guitar picks to play flesh
against steel instead.
after Sumlin and The Nighthawks performed “Spoonful,” a classic Howlin’
Wolf tune that was covered by Cream, Eric Clapton’s former group, Humlin
addressed the crowd.
see this?” he said, as he pointed to the tubes attached to his nose.
“I’m not going to let this stop me from doing what I gotta do.”
and the band then went into “Sitting On Top of the World,” another song
by Sumlin’s former boss. Sumlin handled the vocals on this one. Although
Sumlin’s voice is nowhere near as rough and gravelly as Howlin’ Wolf, it
was nice to hear him belt out a tune, especially since his manager is
very protective, and understandably so, of how much he talks and sings.
and The Nighthawks don’t limit their set list to Howlin’ Wolf tunes.
They did a Jimmy Reed song, B.B. King’s “It’s My Own Fault” and would
close the show with Muddy Waters’ “I’m Ready.” There was one point in
the concert where Sumlin got off of his seat, stood up and pointed at
Nighthawks’ guitarist Paul Bell to give credit to a fellow axe man
sounding pretty darn sweet. Encouraged, Bell kept dishing out some nice
licks and prompted another point in his direction from Sumlin. When
Hubert Sumlin, at 79 years old, stands up, turns and points at you, not
once but twice, that is the ultimate compliment. No words are needed.
rated #65 on Rolling Stone magazine’s list of “The 100 Greatest
Guitarists of All Time” - represented a dapper figure on stage. His
shiny black shoes, black suit and black snap-brim fedora stood out among
the more casual attire of The Nighthawks band members. But that’s just
the era Sumlin comes from, the era when people dressed up when they had
and The Nighthawks also treated the crowd to “Howlin’ for My Darlin’”
and “Feed Me,” two more songs recorded by Howlin’ Wolf. There were some
classics that the audience never got to hear, such as “Smokestack
Lightnin,’” “Wang Dang Doodle” and “Back Door Man,” but that will happen
when Sumlin is only on stage for a limited time. The Nighthawks
performed for 50 minutes before Sumlin ever came out. Meanwhile,
Sumlin’s total time on stage clocked in at 40 minutes. Do the math and
it was a relatively short gig for the Blues Foundation Hall of Fame
inductee. However, the 200 or so in attendance didn’t seem to mind. They
know Sumlin could easily be at home enjoying retirement, but instead
he’s still touring, still playing, despite his physical condition. If he
can’t be on stage as long as he used to, so be it. Hubert Sumlin for 40
minutes is better than no Hubert Sumlin at all.
© Copyright 2011 Kirk Lang. All Rights Reserved.
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