When we were invited to spend the Woodstock Festival’s 40th anniversary weekend at our friends’ home in Woodstock itself (actually Bearsville, a few miles west on Route 212), I checked the local gig schedule and saw that former Howlin’ Wolf guitarist Hubert Sumlin would be appearing at the Bearsville Theater on Saturday night. Hubert turns 78 this November and it seemed an opportune moment to hear one of the last surviving originators of Chicago electric blues. Only when we saw the flyers posted around town did I discover that Hubert was but one of four acts on the show.

Also appearing were a local local gospel-infused jam band called Children of God, the 2009 version of the Blues Magoos (!), and the folk-blues singer/guitarist Ellen McIlwaine. (So far as I know, this Children of God has no connection to the notorious mind-control/child-bride cult of the same name. That organization’s founder/ruler, the demonic Tony Alamo, is now incarcerated — for life, I hope — although that hasn’t stopped his zombie believers from scuttling through the streets of the East Village in the pre-dawn hours, inserting their poisonous “literature” under the windshield wipers of parked cars. But I digress…)

Ellen McIlwaine released two Polydor albums, Honky Tonk Angel (1972) and We The People (1973), that were among my wife’s turntable favorites as an Oberlin College undergrad.  I dimly recalled seeing this artist live, probably in Minneapolis circa 1973-74, when I may have dismissed her as a Bonnie Raitt wannabe. I’d barely played Ellen’s two-CD retrospective, Up From The Skies: The Polydor Years (Universal Music, now stupidly out of print) , that had been taking up precious shelf space since its release in 1998. So I had no particular expectations of this gig except that it might come as a pleasant surprise to Leslie, who’d never seen her live back in that day.

ELLEN McILWAINE [Photo: Peter Sutherland]Well, that night at the Bearsville Theater, Ellen Mcilwaine was really good even though not in peak form or performing under ideal conditions. The venue was less than half-full; the singer claimed to have “blown out my voice” at a blues festival the week before in Canada (where she’s lived since 1987); and because an on-stage fan was broken, she sweated profusely under the lights.

But McIlwaine — who’s been out there since 1966, who jammed with Jimi Hendrix (nee Jimmy James) at the Cafe Au Go-Go — is a trouper in the best sense of the word. There was nothing slick or rote about her performance: She struck me as someone who always will try for real communication — if not with her audience, then with music itself. She’s an original and highly inventive amplified-acoustic guitarist who plays in multiple open tunings using all ten fingers; and a powerful, supple singer whose occasional ululating swoops into the stratosphere never sounded forced or showy. Ellen told us that she’d spent some of her childhood in Japan (where, I surmised, her parents may have been missionaries) and had listened to a great deal of “world music” — including Japanese folk music as well as that of South Asia and North Africa — long before anybody began using that term.

McIlwaine had me from her unexpected opener: a medley of Seventies funk classics by Al Green, the Isley Brothers, Bill Withers — I think she even tossed in a chunk of Herbie Hancock’s “Chameleon.” She held me right up through her encore of the gospel classic “Farther Along,” a full-throated, ragged-but-right rendition for which she was joined to excellent effect by the four black male singers from the Children of God.

Afterwards, we stopped by Ellen’s merch table and bought a copy of her most recent CD, Mystic Bridge (2006). I’ve been disappointed by any number of self-released albums but this one sounds and plays like a real record rather than a haphazard collection of demos. It includes some worthy EM originals like “Save the World” and the qawwali-inspired “Sidu” (with her intense, droning guitar joined by tabla and soprano sax) alongside covers of John Lee Hooker’s “Crawlin’ Kingsnake,” Gene McDaniels’ “Disposable Society,” and Jimi’s “May This Be Love.”

-> Ellen McIlwaine – “On The Road Again”live at Calgary Winter Bluesfest, 2008

-> Ellen McIlwaine – “Sidu”live, 9.26.2008

Hubert Sumlin On Stage (2003)

Hubert Sumlin, with hat and Strat (2003)

Which brings us to Hubert Sumlin, who was backed by guitarist Chris Bergson with standup bass, electric piano, and drums. Bergson impresses with the clean, ringing tone of his hollow-bodied Gibson 335 and in his warm-up set prior to Hubert’s appearance I dug his version of “The Stumble,” one of my favorite Freddy King instrumentals. Predictably, I was much less stirred by his singing, which is unforced but rather colorless.

(“They got all these white kids now. Some of them can play good blues. They play so much, run a ring around you playin’ guitar, but they cannot vocal like the black man.” — Muddy Waters)

Of course, Hubert Sumlin is a black man but he’s not much of a singer either. He never had to be, having made his rep as the brilliantly intuitive instrumental foil to Howlin’ Wolf over the course of two decades until the latter’s death in 1975. It was Hubert’s fate to live on, performing Howlin’ Wolf classics without having Howlin’ Wolf around to sing them, and tonight was no different than a hundred others.

There’s a kind of magic in his fluid, fractured riffs and in the constant movement of his long fingers up and down the frets. But Sumlin has always been the most self-effacing of lead guitarists, never one to build up a solo through multiple choruses to some roof-raising peak of excitement a la Albert King or Buddy Guy. After he and the band had worked their affable way through three or four numbers, most sung by Chris Bergson, we were done for the night (didn’t stick around for the Blues Magoos).

-> Howlin’ Wolf with Hubert Sumlin (lead guitar) – “Shake For Me”live in Germany, 1964