Thursday, November 9, 2006

Hubert Sumlin

When guitarist and former "Saturday Night Live" bandleader G.E. Smith toured extensively with Bob Dylan, he rarely took his eyes off Dylan's hands for fear of missing an abrupt chord change, tempo shift or tune segue. Now that he is supporting guitarist Hubert Sumlin, best known for the classic Chicago blues recordings he made with Howlin' Wolf more than 40 years ago, Smith still can't afford to blink much.

After all, the Mississippi-born Sumlin is a wonderfully idiosyncratic country picker at heart. At Blues Alley on Wednesday night, Sumlin played a Gibson Goldtop guitar in trademark, rural, two-finger style -- his thumb generating plenty of rhythmic bounce, his index finger juxtaposing skittish single-note runs, swiped chords and octave-leaping exclamations. While Sumlin was onstage for less than an hour -- he's had significant health issues in recent years -- he was in playful spirits, often singing with outstretched arms. It's a shame he didn't devote more time to Wolf's hit list, but among the highlights was "The Red Rooster" (a.k.a. "Little Red Rooster"), which featured Smith colorfully evoking Wolf's slide guitar.

Smith's trio, with bassist Paul Ossola and drummer Robin Gould, opened with an enjoyable set. A capable singer and an exceptional guitarist, Smith fluidly revealed his early infatuation with Sonny Boy Williamson, J.B. Hutto and other blues elders. He also paid tribute to Dylan with a churning, funk-flavored version of "Highway 61 Revisited" that fell somewhere between the sound of the original recording and Johnny Winter's searing cover version.

Sumlin performs with the Nighthawks at the State Theatre on Nov. 24.

-- Mike Joyce

Salzburg Chamber Soloists

The Salzburg Chamber Soloists, led by concertmaster Lavard Skou-Larsen at the Kennedy Center's Terrace Theater Tuesday night, gave a tight performance of the Sinfonia in B by Leopold Mozart (father of the famous Wolfgang). In this late-baroque work, the musicians' surprisingly bold sound and clean phrasing was stylistically fitting, though a greater contrast in volume would have made the piece truly exciting.

Music by Anton Bruckner and Wolfgang Mozart originally intended for five players benefited from the larger forces of this 15-piece ensemble. The Salzburgians captured the dark side of Mozart's harmonies in his Viola Quintet in C Minor, K.406. In this orchestral setting, the piece was symphonic in proportion and indeed foreshadowed the composer's later symphonies.

Bruckner's Adagio from the Quintet in F swathed the concert hall in a velvety cloak of sound. Skou-Larsen directed nuances that were played with such import and tenderness that you could feel a drama unfold with each measure.

Haydn's Cello Concerto in C is played so often by top cellists that a mediocre performance really stands out. Crowd-pleasing soloist Katharina Gross was passionate, but her imprecise finger positions were apt to produce a wispy half-tone; her high notes weren't always on target and her meager sound was sometimes on the verge of being overpowered. The ensemble didn't seem inspired by her performance, with repeated phrases generating monotony rather than building tension.

-- Gail Wein

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