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.
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
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
All portraits of Jimmy Page found at Flickr.com.
My on-and-off association with the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame goes back more than two decades — initially as a voter, then more significantly as managing editor (for a few years) and contributing writer (ongoing) to the program book published for the Hall’s annual induction dinner. I could write at great length about this organization’s pros and cons, ups and downs, and why (The Stooges) (The Hollies) (Jan & Dean) (the New York Dolls) (KISS) (Insert Your Favorite Band Here) still have not been inducted. For the moment, suffice to say I’ve had some memorably great times at these events. The ceremony held April 5, 2009 in Cleveland was no exception — beginning the day before when, entirely by happenstance, I met Jimmy Page at the Rock Hall itself. This post is based on the notes I took immediately following our encounter.
It was a violently wet and windy Friday afternoon on the shores of Lake Erie, and the museum was crowded — not surprising, given the week-long local buzz surrounding only the second Hall of Fame induction to be held in Cleveland in the event’s 23-year history. I was strolling alone through the exhibits when I spotted a friend, chief curator Howard Kramer, leading a guided tour for a small group.
“Andy!” he hailed me, “Great to see you — have you met Jimmy Page?” In fact, I had not.
I shook hands with the founder of Led Zeppelin, a well-preserved 65-year-old wearing his silver-gray hair in a ponytail. Unprompted, Howard gave me the Big Build-Up, effusively describing my recent work on the Rock Hall’s Soho annex. After some uncontrolled fan-boy babble noting about seeing Led Zeppelin opening for Iron Butterfly at the Fillmore East (1.31.1969) I explained to Pagey that I’d written the site descriptions for the Annex’s 26-foot-long scale model of historic “Rock and Roll Manhattan.”
“You must have Steve Paul’s The Scene on there, I’m sure,” said Jimmy, and I hastened to assure him that this legendary West 46th Street nightspot is included in the installation.
“Great club!” Pagey continued, with genuine enthusiasm. “That’s where I saw Howlin’ Wolf for the first time. He’d been to England a few times but I’d never gotten the chance to see him there. I still remember, he and [guitarist] Hubert Sumlin had had some sort of falling-out and I was a bit disappointed that Hubert wasn’t on the gig that night at The Scene.
“I was sitting there slack-jawed, watching Wolf just tear it up, when Buddy Miles came in. Some guy comes over and says to me, ‘y’know, we can get this guy’ — meaning Howlin’ Wolf — off the stage so that you and Buddy can jam.’ I couldn’t believe it — I’m sure I told him to fuck off!” I asked Jimmy if he’d ever jammed at The Scene on another occasion, but he said no, it was a place he went to hang out and listen rather than play.
“Y’know, Andy, a lot of Mafia punks used to frequent The Scene — these young guys pouring out piles of coke on their tables. Some people wouldn’t go there because of that element.”
Jimmy’s thoughts shifted to another, more short-lived Manhattan venue, the heavily Mobbed-up West Village rock club Salvation. (Salvation only lasted about a year as a live music venue but during that time, it was a favorite hangout for Jimi Hendrix. Although I can’t vouch for the accuracy of his account, author Jerry Hopkins wrote at length about Salvation’s troubled history in Chapter 13 of his 1996 biography The Jimi Hendrix Experience.)
Page: “I may have been there only once but I remember that Jimi came in, or rather was led in by some people” — and here he assumed the heavy-lidded, open-mouthed expression of a very loaded Hendrix. “He was at another table and someone came over and asked if I wanted to join him, as we’d never met before.
“But I said no, because Jimi seemed really out of it and I just didn’t want to meet him under those circumstances. Unfortunately, I never got another chance — really too bad.”
Page seemed happy to go on in this vein for a while: He engaged directly with me the whole time, never looking at his watch, checking his PDA, staring into space, or otherwise signaling that the conversaion was now over. However, photographer Ross Halfin and Jimmy’s female companion (we weren’t introduced) were ready to move on. As we shook hands once more and said goodbye, I urged him to check out the Rock Annex on his next visit to New York. A few days later, the NY Daily News reported that Jimmy Page had toured the Mercer Street museum, stopping at the gift shop to purchase five Led Zeppelin t-shirts (I guess he can afford them).
The West Village rock club Generation was a favorite hangout and jamming spot for Jimi Hendrix. When it closed after six months in the fall of 1968, Hendrix and his manager Michael Jeffery bought Generation and hired Jim Marron to oversee its remodeling. Marron soon convinced his clients to create “a recording studio that was like a nightclub, in that it could be a place that Jimi could entertain his friends—you could do private parties—but it would be a non-public club, one that was fully wired [for] multi-track recording.”
Construction was prolonged and costly but Hendrix began recording at Electric Lady weeks before the official opening party on August 25, 1970. This event marked the last time Jimi Hendrix set foot in Electric Lady. Immediately afterwards, the guitarist flew to England to appear at the Isle of Wight festival; he died in London less than a month later, on September 18.
The loss of the studio’s inspirational figurehead was followed, in later years, by floods, fires, and ill-conceived renovations. Yet by 2008, Electric Lady had survived all of its major competitors to become New York’s longest-running major recording facility. Albums recorded entirely or in part at Electric Lady include Cry of Love (Jimi Hendrix), Led Zeppelin III, Some Girls (Rolling Stones), Voodoo (D’Angelo), Horses (Patti Smith), Talking Book (Stevie Wonder), and Shaman (Santana).