Last Day Saloon, Santa Rosa

January 12, 2004
By Rolf Olmsted

I paid my $20 and walked up the stairs into the Last Day Saloon's main hall and my heart sank.  The dance floor was covered with chairs and tables.  At that point it was an empty hall too.  I involuntarily blurted out "No Dance Floor!"  Mark Hummel, talking with a fellow blues fan, flinched when he heard me.

I struck up a conversation with the blues fan.  He let me know that Mark was discouraged with the turnout in Santa Rosa in recent years.  Last year had been low attendance.  Things weren't very full right then.  We talked about the complete failure of the Press Democrat to support the local music scenes and the difficult time bands have getting any notice or even calendared.

Gradually the hall began to fill up with a mostly older crowd.  At a table in the back Charlie Musselwhite and his wife were having dinner.  Sonoma County DJ heavyweight Bill Bowker joined them and some other notables.

Mark Hummel as Master of Ceremonies ran down the show for us and introduced John Peterson who did his usual workmanlike job as a harp player.  The Blues Survivors were a hot band:  Marty Dotson on drums, long tall Steve Wolf on bass, Charles "the English Gentleman" Wheal on guitar, and "Dynamite" Bob Welch on keyboards and guitar.  Welch was a pleasant surprise to me.  I knew he'd been doing some national touring; every time I've seen him play it's been great.  And this time he had his guitar with him too.

Mo, the da Blues Traveler, arrived, saw no dance floor, and said, "I'm leaving, no dance floor.  It's the principle of the thing."  She went to the front door and asked for her money back.  The staff at the door seemed not to understand the concept---the manger had to intervene.

Things picked up a bit when Charles Wheal sang, but the lack of dancers made things a bit stiff.  He did a nice solo on "Big Town Playboy" and sang it well too.

Those of us who like to move had to go over in the corners.  Only a couple of ladies danced. The big "Lurch" bouncer stood at the side of the stage at the doorway.  He was apparently waiting for waves of hormonally charged blues fans to charge the stage and rip the clothes off the band.  He spent most of his time sucking on a tall glass of something brown and staring contemptuously at the audience.

A strange thing was the lack of stage lighting, only the spotlight Klieg light worked.  The musicians spent the whole night being blinded.

Mark Hummel introduced Willie "Big Eyes" Smith on harp.  Willie really can play harp too.  He has a southern 'juke' sound and an early Chicago sound too.  "Key To The Highway" done the old time way with Charles Wheal finger picking was a treat.  After some Chicago classics like "You're So Fine" and "Eyesight To The Blind" Willie waved to the crowd and Mark Hummel came back on.

The organ sound of the big chromatic harp filled the hall and Hummel did a nice set of big sounding tunes.  I found it really hard to sit without dancing.  There was some space on the sides, but it really sucks not having enough space and not being able to dance freely.  It seemed to inhibit the musicians too.  Even though I liked Mark's sound I just had to go outside, I was tired of just sitting.

The great acoustic duo of Cephas and Wiggins came out and set up fast.  And they were off. They were one of the reasons I'd come and they didn't disappoint.  Doing the old time blues of the Piedmont plateau of Virginia and the Carolinas, their harmonica and guitar was so sweet. They did a rousing rendition of something about ?Trouble In My Life,? and followed that up with a beautiful demonstration of Elizabeth Cotton style finger work on "Freight Train."  Then showing some Delta style single string work on "School Girl" they changed that into "Chauffeur."  When they did "Baby What You want Me To Do" they actually got the most people up dancing for the night.  John Cephas did a masterful "Sweet and Bitter Blues" with up the neck finger picking.  Wow, is he good.  Levi Lloyd said, "He put on a clinic."  See John Cephas and Phil Wiggins if you can.

Mark Hummel came back on and announced Carey Bell with Willie "Big Eyes" Smith on drums.  Carey Bell took us away immediately.  People were asking me about him and I told them what I knew, but Carey was blowing me away.  I didn't know many of his tunes but it was a masterful performance, really strong!  With Bob Welch playing piano like Otis Spann and Willie "Big Eyes" playing Muddy Waters drums it was deep, deep old time Chicago.  What a tone he has!  And a very good singer too, with great phrasing.  I'm gonna watch for Carey Bell CDs from now on.  I'm impressed.

Lazy Lester came on and he was fun. He did some swamp pop numbers and "Five Long Years."  He wasn't as strong a harp player as I'd expected; it probably was a mistake to put him on after Carey Bell.

But not to worry, when the finale came on Lester picked up a guitar and was much better, sounding VERY Louisiana and swamp.  Joining Mark Hummel, Lazy Lester, Cary Bell, Phil Wiggins, Willie Smith (on drums), were Charlie Musselwhite and 15-year-old Sweetharp Santana.  Lots of fine solos were traded back and forth on Jimmy Reed's "Caress Me, Baby."  This was a much better finale than most I've seen, more disciplined. All and all a very good night of the blues--but no dance floor.

...Rolf Olmsted

Rolf Olmsted was born on the banks of the Mississippi River and had a dog and played his father's mandolin. He was exposed to the blues at an early age which accounts for it. Among his accomplishments are reproduction, a collection of cheap guitars, and computer semi-literacy. He's guilty of attempted guitar and mandolin playing.