Howlin’ Wolf: In Concert 1970
Having never seen Wolf live, I was anxious to review this rare video of a full Howlin’ Wolf concert featuring his long-time backer and one of may all-time favorite guitar players, Hubert Sumlin. The concert is from 1970 at Washington D.C‘s. all-black Howard University. The disc begins with interviews of a cross section of this area of D.C.’s blacks being asked if they know who Howlin’ Wolf is. Very few do. This sets up the concert where Wolf comes on to the stage on all fours to explain in almost painful detail about he is the one and only, the original Tail Dragger, THE Howlin’ Wolf.
Now, before I continue, we must remember at this stage in his life, Wolf was 60 years old; he had been in a bad car accident; he was receiving kidney dialysis; and I believe had already had one heart attack. That being said, I wasn’t prepared for the on-stage antics--bulging his eyes, crawling, loping, and his many facial expressions--being interspersed with moments where he seemed lost and unaware that a concert was going on. I had prepared myself for the big man who rode a mini bike on stage, climbed curtains, and made men and women afraid. Sadly, this concert wasn’t a shining moment for Wolf. I kept thinking, too bad this isn’t from 1960 rather than 1970. Wolf, at this point, was 6 years away from his untimely death.
So, how is the concert? Well it’s shot in B&W, the sound is uneven (Hubert Sumlin seems closest to the mic); some shots are unfocused; and some lyrics and utterances are drowned out by Hubert Sumlin and Sunnyland Slim. The highlight of the DVD is the added, shot-in-color, afterthought “bonus” of Wolf doing “Sitting On Top Of The World” with the Wolf Gang-era band. The Howard University concert is marred by songs being cut short to fade to equally hard-to-hear interviews with Wolf and Sunnyland. The cameraman during these interviews seems to be sitting on the floor, looking up at his subjects, while Hubert Sumlin, unaware that video is being shot, noodles on guitar and piano somewhere in the room.
The concert songs, in order, with comments are as follows:
1) “Highway 49“--Sumlin’s guitar drowns out almost everyone else, except Sunnyland, who is playing an electric piano that at times sounds like a second guitar. This songs sets the tone of the video: Sumlin’s fantastic, if overpowering guitar, great complimentary accompaniment from Sunnyland Slim; an almost inaudible S.P. Leary on drums; nearly audible solid bass work from the only white guy, Randy Joe Fullerton, and the aping, almost vaudevillian stage antics of Wolf. Is it entertaining yes; is it embarrassing yes. But I am looking through the highly-sensitive, PC lenses of 2007. What the mostly black audience of 37 years ago saw, I’ll never know. Here too, we are prepared for the sloppy camera work and unbalanced sound. Again, was this shot to capture the moment--like a home movie?--OR did the crew look ahead to documenting a piece of blues history. If, the latter, I wish they would have taken a bit more care.
2) “How Many More Years”--A good version that is preceded by backstage conversations with Wolf and Sunnyland about the blues progression from Mamie Smith, through Robert Johnson, to the electric blues. (Guitarists will have been glued to the video by now trying to figure out how and what the brilliant Hubert Sumlin is doing.)
3) “Killing Floor”--A great song almost marred by Wolf’s antics.
4) “Howlin’ For My Darlin’”--cut short by the editors need to include more interview footage. Shame, shame, shame.
5) “Back Door Man”--Not as dynamic as the record, but good just the same. Again, cut short for interviews.
6) “I Want To Have A Little Talk With You”--a good example of the “disconnected” Wolf. He seems to just not care here. Lots of inaudible stuff.
7) “Smile At Me”--Again, sort of a throw-away. More inaudible asides.
8) “Declaration Day”--concludes the concert. See comments on 6 and 7. I believe the bonus footage was added to end the DVD on a high note. By this point in the concert, Wolf appears to be ready to call it a night. I believe his health was declining, so I will not complain.
All in all, it is a video worth having if you’re a Wolf fan. I know of no other full-concert footage. Hubert Sumlin’s playing is the glue that holds the songs together and is a delight to guitarists everywhere. Sunnyland’s electric piano stands on it’s own merit and is a great accompaniment to Sumlin’s lines--at times sounding like two guitars. Yes there are sound problems: you can’t hear S. P. Leary--a great blues drummer--at all! The camera work seems somewhat amateurish. The sound man follows the sound, sacrificing the visual at times. A better introduction to Howlin’ Wolf is The Howlin’ Wolf Story, but again, this video captures a legend, with a crack band, on a given night in blues history, and for that reason alone is worth owning--faults and all.