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Surrounded by love: Hubert Sumlin meets Ronnie Earl

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Guitarist Hubert Sumlin's music is characterized by an obstinate, almost compulsive individualism. He's best known for his work as Howlin' Wolf's accompanist during Wolf's Chess Records heyday. His eerie leads, shimmering like steel behind Wolf's primal roar, alternated between staccato fierceness and an almost hornlike exploratory impetus. Sometimes sounding like he was barely under control, he played a major role in creating the nearly mystical sense of foreboding characteristic of Wolf's sound during that period. Eventually Sumlin's surrealistic harmonic concepts were adapted by 60s-era blues rockers; Eric Clapton, among others, has cited him as a major inspiration.

Blues writer Peter Guralnick once described Sumlin as a "peculiarly vulnerable sort of man"; he always seemed to need a strong musical anchor to avoid careening off into chaos. His playing is liable to veer from near genius to dissolution within the course of a single solo, reflecting a mercurial personality that over the years has baffled casual associates and intimates alike. Even under the direction of the formidable Wolf, Sumlin had his problems; it's said that Wolf once knocked out Sumlin's front teeth with a microphone in frustration.

Wolf died in 1976. In his fitful career since then, Sumlin has attempted to both honor and transcend his reputation as one of the great blues sidemen. His inability to remain focused, however, has been a hindrance. He sometimes seems wrapped in a hazy cocoon of isolation on the bandstand. While his band tries to provide sufficient structure to keep him grounded, he stands off to one side, head askew, eyes staring into space, an enigmatic half-smile on his lips. His solos squirm and burst into jagged patterns of eccentric beauty, then all too often dissolve painfully into discord. His lyrics, often improvised, cascade and bounce off one another in ricochets of free association and random imagery.

Ronnie Earl, the guitarist who was paired with Sumlin at Buddy Guy's Legends a few weeks ago, projects an image that's as open and vulnerable as Sumlin's. But it's grounded in the steely strength of a man who's braved both personal and professional upheavals of the most wrenching kind and emerged with his music and his soul intact. Earl started out in the Boston area, jamming with visiting Chicago luminaries like Otis Rush and Big Walter Horton. But even as he honed his skills in the Chicago tradition he retained an affection for jazz and the sophisticated blues of T-Bone Walker and his contemporaries. When Roomful of Blues, a New England-based band that specializes in tight, horn-drenched arrangements, signed him on about 1979, he found it easy to adapt his style to theirs.

About three years ago, at the same time he was straightening out a drug and alcohol problem that had nearly destroyed him, Earl tore himself away from his secure but musically limiting job with Roomful of Blues to plunge into a solo career. Since then he's dug back into his Chicago roots to reclaim some of that music's raw intensity; he's also continued to explore more complex improvisational directions.

Like Sumlin, Earl plays music that reflects his personality. He manages to be both uncompromising and flexible, staying in control while rolling with virtually any change or challenge that comes his way. He neatly lays intricate filigrees of notes behind a lead player or underneath the pounding of the rhythm section and simultaneously directs the show: he cues the other musicians with his facial expressions and bodily contortions, and suggests alternate directions through subtle alterations in rhythm and timbre, then shoots off and builds new layers of multitonal complexity, all within the harmonic and rhythmic restrictions of straight-ahead blues.

Earl usually travels with his own band, but he still jumps at the chance to play alongside the older musicians who were his original inspiration. At Buddy Guy's he was booked with Junior Wells on Friday night and Sumlin on Saturday. One could scarcely imagine a more varied challenge for a visiting guitarist: Wells is a strutting showman who asserts control over his band with the brashness of an aging street punk. That, of course, is in direct contrast to Sumlin's gentle, almost waiflike presence onstage.

On Saturday night, Sumlin and Earl strolled out onto the bandstand together; within a few notes each man's musical role was apparent. Without providing any cue whatsoever, Sumlin suddenly tore into a splintered stop-time intro as the band fumbled around trying to find his elusive groove. He zipped up and down the length of his fret board a few times before Earl cut in with a straight-ahead solo that pulled everything together and set the stage for Sumlin's next flights of fancy.

During the first set Sumlin's solos popped and sputtered all over the place. Even on slow-rolling blues, his notes and chords sounded more percussive than plucked, as if he were banging them out on an anvil. Beneath those metallic shots Earl's guitar sang sweetly; he wove his lines precisely over, under, and through Sumlin's eccentric spirals of sound. Earl played straight man to Sumlin's riffing clown, providing a running musical commentary--almost a translation--as Sumlin explored the outer reaches of musical coherence.

It was during the second set that Sumlin and Earl finally fell into synergy, and the result was spellbinding. As Sumlin noodled fiercely through the registers, Earl stood face-to-face with him, leering and bouncing in time with the music, forcing structure on Sumlin's errant muse. With the rhythm section pounding behind him and Earl goading him on, it was virtually impossible for Sumlin to squirm out of the restrictions of the blues form. Within those restrictions his solos soared, groveled, flip-flopped, and somersaulted into crazy patterns that strained against the boundaries Earl and the band laid down.

But Earl did not play the role of acolyte. He often took the initiative, both in his solos and accompaniment. Especially arresting was his rhythmic inventiveness. He has a distinctive knack of playing against the beat in unexpected places, and he'll hold a note or a phrase over into the next measure and then continue the solo as he'd been playing it, reversing the expected rhythmic pattern. A remarkably clean player, he's capable of sustained leads full of furious staccato flurries that never sound jumbled.

Few guitarists pour themselves into their music as totally as Ronnie Earl. He's entirely devoid of pretense or posed hipness; in his passion he jumps up and down, bobs his head and twists his shoulders in convulsive motions, and leaps unexpectedly around the stage. Even when he's strumming a simple 12-bar accompaniment on a slow blues, his commitment is total; his arms, shoulders, and neck quiver with intensity as the chords emanate quietly from his instrument.

The evening's most memorable moments were those when Earl and Sumlin went head-to-head. One duet in particular almost burned down the bandstand: with their faces inches apart, the two guitarists slithered through reptilian musical convolutions, which Earl suddenly cut short with a barrage of notes so sharp they sounded as if they'd been bitten off. As Sumlin continued his serpentine explorations, Earl broke into raucous, chiming chords that built into screaming upper-register crescendos; Sumlin responded with banshee shrieks and wails of his own.

Sumlin, for once, not only lived up to his legend--he surpassed it. His leads twisted and spun around Earl's, ascending through those long crescendos to a final climactic moment when he let loose with an undulating scream that melded with Earl's fiery excesses to create a sonic maelstrom remindful of the "energy music" that John Coltrane experimented with toward the end of his career. It was a celebration of music's transcendent potential, at once brutal in its dissonance and soothing in its exultation.

Such moments rarely occur between musicians who play together every night; they're virtually unheard- of in a show like this, pairing artists who may see each other a few times a year at most. It would be tempting to say that this was simply a meeting of two men with complementary styles, who happened to encounter each other on a night when each was at the top of his game.

But Ronnie Earl and Hubert Sumlin complement each other in ways that go beyond mere musical compatibility. Earl is as devoid of macho pretense as he is of white- hipster posing (before the show he greeted a man he knew slightly with a tender "Give me a hug!" and embraced him warmly); his in-your-face goading of Sumlin was as much an unabashed outpouring of love as it was a strategy to assert musical control.

The warmth of Earl's attentions seemed to create a shell of safety around Sumlin. Within that safe space Sumlin was free to take chances, secure in the knowledge that he was in good hands. "Surrounded by Love," the title song of Earl's current LP on Black Top, describes Earl's own gratefulness for the support and friendships that have helped keep him free of drugs and alcohol over the last three years; this particular evening, it could have described Hubert Sumlin's situation too.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Marc PoKempner.

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