Close to midnight last night at New York’s Apollo Theater, Eric Clapton had just finished a thunderous take on classic blues number “Forty Four” when Keith Richards ambled onstage with no introduction. Wearing a dark blazer, long green scarf, fedora and a huge grin, he embraced Clapton and stood center stage to massive applause, delivering a smoky take on Howlin’ Wolf’s “Going Down Slow,” a chronicle of a frail man who has savored life’s greatest pleasures. “Man, I’ve had things that kings and queens will never have,” Richards growled. “In fact, they don’t even know about them, let alone get ’em. And good times? Mmmm….” He hovered around Clapton and then stood sidestage by the piano while Clapton delivered a throaty verse and then weaved clean-toned solos with young Austin guitarist Gary Clark Jr.
There were many highlights at Howlin for Hubert – a tribute to guitarist Hubert Sumlin, who played in Howlin’ Wolf’s band for decades and passed away on December 4th due to heart failure – but that was the peak. It was Richards’ first major musical appearance since the Rolling Stones last toured five years ago, and he showed little rust. After “Going Down Slow,” he sat down and played metallic 12-string slide while singing “Little Red Rooster,” and then strapped on a Gibson electric guitar to sing and trade licks with Clapton on “Spoonful.” “It’s good to be back,” Richards said, peering up to the balcony before breaking into a cackle. “Goddamn, it’s good to be back.”
The entire show, which featured all-stars including Buddy Guy, Billy Gibbons, Warren Haynes, Jimmie Vaughan, Derek Trucks, Doyle Bramhall II and Elvis Costello – plus overlooked legends like Wolf’s former bandmates, harmonica player James Cotton, guitarist Jody Williams and saxophonist Eddie Shaw – was one for the history books. The event originated while Sumlin was still alive as a celebration to mark his 80th birthday. It stayed that way; Guest after guest recounted Sumlin’s unfaltering positivity and passion for his instrument. At one point, Toni Ann Mamary, Sumlin’s longtime manager and companion, tearfully recalled Sumlin tellling her, “I’m gonna be there. I don’t care if I play – I’m going to be there.” She added, “Can you feel him?”
The night began with a film featuring classic Sumlin performance footage and a recent interview with him, where Sumlin humorously described how he found his own piercing signature sound after Wolf strongly urged him to lose the guitar pick. The stage lights then revealed two massive portraits of Sumlin behind the stage. His sunburst Stratocaster sat on a stand at center stage, with his trademark feathered cap hanging off of it. Clapton emerged – with short, slicked-back hair and wearing a blazer – with Cotton, Sumlin’s old musical partner. Clapton kicked the night off howling an acoustic, stomping “Key to the Highway,” complemented by Cotton’s razor-sharp harp fills.
Each set came and went in a flash. Performers were backed by an incredible house band including Steve Jordan and Jim Keltner, two of the best drummers alive, bassist Willie Weeks and pianist Ivan Neville. An early highlight was Jimmie Vaughan performing an electric solo version of “Six Strings Down,” a tribute to fallen gunslingers. When he sang “Albert Collins up there / Muddy and Lightnin’ too / Albert and Freddy / playing the blues,” it was easy to feel more than one spirit in the room. Kenny Wayne Shepherd and 77-year-old Jody Williams jammed on Williams’ ferocious 1957 instrumental “Lucky Lou,” Shepherd unleashing flurries of loud, screeching notes. The New York Dolls’ David Johansen – who sang lead at many of Sumlin’s shows in recent years – emerged for “Evil,” replicating Howlin’ Wolf’s vocals with a weathered cat-scratch howl.
Chicago blues legend Lonnie Brooks, 78, and his son Ronnie Baker Brooks performed a rousing “Sweet Home Chicago,” and 74-year-old Eddie Shaw animatedly sang and played sax on “Sitting on Top of the World.” Soon, Costello surprised the crowd when he appeared unannounced in a grey, checkered suit, to jam on an instrumental boogie and sing “Hidden Charms.” Later, Warren Haynes nailed Wolf’s boogie “You’ll Be Mine” and invited Billy Gibbons to add some Texas twang to “Killing Floor.”
During set two, Keb Mo and and Shaw performed a slinky “Howling for My Baby;” Doyle Bramhall II led the band in a stellar “Commit a Crime” and Robert Randolph played a blissful “Who Do You Love?” with ferocious pedal steel playing, dancing out of his chair to the Bo Diddley beat. Derek Trucks backed wife Susan Tedeschi on “How Many More Years” and “Three Hundred Pounds of Joy.” Between Trucks’ scorching slide solos, Tedeschi managed to pull off lines like “Honey / I’m your boy / 300 pounds / of heavenly joy.”
Buddy Guy brought the night to a new peak with a raucous, bravado-filled set that included “I’m Going Down” with Randolph, Guy stabbing and holding volume-shifting notes while he gestured to the crowd like he was passing out money. During a stomping “Hoochie Coochie Man,” he belted a verse away from the microphone, telling the band to “play it so funky you can smell it.”
27-year-old newcomer Gary Clark Jr., who recently signed to Warner Bros. Records, had the challenge of following Guy. He nailed a cover of “Catfish Blues” full of fat-toned fury. He then introduced Clapton back to the stage, who backed Clark on a soulful “Shake For Me.” Clapton grinned away, appearing thrilled to act as a sideman, and traded solos with Clark. Clapton then took the lead for a vigorous “Little Baby” with a swinging start-and-stop groove, looking at the ceiling while unleashing muscular solos full of vibrato. His playing wasn’t flashy or overly virtuosic, but it was still Clapton.
By that time, Richards’ appearance felt like a bonus. He looked happy and healthy in his set. He also looked like classic Keith: He took off his hat to reveal a full head of grey hair, so frizzy it looked like he was shocked by an electrical socket. He’s currently recording solo tracks with Steve Jordan for an upcoming album. Here’s hoping he’ll promote it by touring theaters, doing exactly what he did last night – singing center-stage, sitting while playing country blues and plugging in when he feels like it – especially if the Stones don’t tour immediately.
After his set, more than thirty of the night’s performers gathered on stage for group jams. Shemekia Copeland led the band on “Wang Dang Doodle” and everyone jammed on Sumlin’s signature riff, “Smokestack Lightning.” It was crowded and messy, but still fun to watch. Richards even broke out some of his classic stage moves: kneeling down, pulling his hand away from the guitar each time he hit a note, and cracking up, especially when Billy Gibbons started fanning Kenny Wayne Shepherds’ guitar. Something Costello said earlier in the night resonated: “The only sad thing about tonight is that Hubert’s not here.”