Blues titans muse ‘About Them Shoes’

The blues genre has a way of making legends out of its musicians when they reach a certain age.

Seemingly, any bluesman who hits 70 shortly thereafter becomes acknowledged as a treasure trove of knowledge and a hero among his peers. Along with the increased level of respect, titles like "legendary" and "incomparable" begin to preface his name so often in articles and concert listings that it'd be easy to think the artist underwent a legal name change.

In other cases, the "legendary" and "incomparable" tags get tiresome and smack of a publicist trying to cast their client in the best possible light.

But "the legendary and incomparable Hubert Sumlin" has an unmistakable ring of truth to it. The 73-year-old blues guitarist, who just released About Them Shoes, has been commanding attention usually reserved for the life- and road-hardened blues sages since his teenage years.

He got his start supporting ace harmonica player James Cotton. Then, at age 18, he joined forces with Chicago blues deity Howlin' Wolf. Along with the rest of Wolf's superb band, the duo spent most of the next 25 years — minus Sumlin's six-month stint backing another Chicago blues legend, Muddy Waters — making music history at Chess Records. Though the Wolf's earth-moving growl usually stole the spotlight on classic tracks like "Smokestack Lightning" and "Killing Floor," Sumlin's uncanny knack for playing just the right note at the right time proved to be the backbone of those essential recordings.

On the 13-track Shoes, a tribute to Waters, Sumlin shows he still has the instinctual touch that made him into one of the blues' most irreplaceable sidemen. The album finds Sumlin leading his star-studded band, which includes Muddy Waters Band veterans Bob Margolin (guitar) and Paul Oscher (harmonica), back to a time when Waters and the Wolf were Chicago's biggest blues giants.

The playing on Shoes is undeniably first rate, with impressive guest spots from Eric Clapton and ex-New York Doll David Johansen helping the cause. Sumlin's unpredictable slide and fret play permeate the disc and keep the guest stars from eclipsing the man they came to support.

However, the tunes rarely deviate from the tried-and-true formula of the mid-tempo shuffle. The disc suffers a bit thanks to the relative sameness of its pieces, though "Walkin' Thru the Park" (featuring Johansen), "Long Distance Call" (featuring Clapton) and the humorous "Iodine In My Coffee" manage to separate themselves from the pack.

Sumlin, who offers his plaintive vocals only on acoustic album closer "Little Girl, This Is The End," and his band also took on the burden of rekindling the fire lit under much of Waters' work. Clapton, Johansen, and the handful of lesser-known guest vocalists rise above being merely serviceable, with the exception of the out-of-place Keith Richards, but they seldom deliver the unbridled energy that Waters infused into his recordings.

Even with its shortcomings, Shoes proves Sumlin still has plenty of good years left in him. Listeners who give Shoes a fair chance, while avoiding the urge to pop in a disc of Waters' originals, should find it to be the top blues release of the year thus far.

Grade: B

This article appeared in The Marquette Tribune on Feb. 17 2005.