It was kind of a weird Christmas for me. For the first time in years, there were no square, flat packages under the tree… no LPs? Sad way for a sad year to end. There weren’t even any box sets out this year that I could slip past the Rock Chick and onto my list. I kept hoping Neil Young would put out Archives II, but I guess we have to wait till next year. I couldn’t help but think of last year when I found Bob Dylan’s “The Cutting Edge 1965-1966” under the tree. It was the fabulous box set, reviewed on an earlier post here at BourbonAndVinyl, highlighting outtakes from “Highway 61 Revisited,” “Bringing It All Back Home,” and “Blonde On Blonde.” One of the greatest things about that box set was the incendiary guitar work of overlooked, under appreciated guitar wizard Michael Bloomfield.
So this year, with no new shiny black vinyl under the tree, I found myself drifting back to Bloomfield’s first band, The Paul Butterfield Blues Band. I don’t know why that band wasn’t huge but they never found the commercial success they deserved. The British Invasion bands like the Stones were always given credit for reintroducing black blues to the white American audiences, but the Paul Butterfield Blues Band was also critical in that process.
Lead singer, harmonica player Paul Butterfield was a blues enthusiast and student at the University of Chicago when he started hanging out at South Side Chicago blues joints. Eventually folks like Little Walter, Muddy Waters and Howlin Wolf were inviting Paul up on stage to play with them. Coincidentally, Michael Bloomfield, son of a wealthy department store family in Chicago, had a similar experience, hanging out and jamming with the blues greats in Chicago. It’s a testament to those old blues giant’s enormous generosity that they’d mentor and encourage these white kids from the suburbs to further the blues. They say that the blues giants recognized Bloomfield’s virtuosity immediately…. Michael himself said, “black people suffer externally in America and Jewish people suffer internally, so we have a lot in common.” All that suffering translated into some amazing guitar solos. As a lapsed Catholic, I often wonder what kind of suffering I could have brought to the instrument, but it’s too late to start now.
Eventually, Butterfield met guitarist Elvin Bishop and they recruited Howlin Wolf’s rhythm section of Sam Lay on drums and Jerome Arnold on bass with Mark Naftalin on keyboards and the line up was set. At the recommendation of a manager/producer they added Bloomfield and the chemistry was incendiary. The dueling guitars of Bloomfield and Bishop is the thing of legend and what I believe every dual guitar band since has emulated – from the Allman Brothers and Lynyrd Skynyrd to Metallica. That back and forth, solo vs solo thing was founded in the Butterfield Blues Band. It broke the mold of lead guitarist, rhythm guy.
They struggled to get their first album on tape. As they attempted to recreate their sound on an album, they continued to grow a cult following by playing live. They famously backed up Bob Dylan at his first public electric performance at Newport. On the version of “Maggie’s Farm” on Dylan’s Bootleg Series Volume 7, Bloomfield melts the faces off the folky crowd with his lead guitar licks. It’s simply the greatest expression of the electric guitar outside of Hendrix that has been committed to tape.
Finally after three false starts, in 1965 the Paul Butterfield Blues Band recorded their eponymous debut album. Not just because I was born there, but because it’s an amazing opening, “Born In Chicago” is one of my all time favorite songs. The album is a mix of new songs, written by band members, and covers of those blues greats who had mentored them. Little Walter’s “Blues With A Feeling” and Muddy’s “I Got My Mojo Working” are stand outs. “Screamin'” and “Thank You Mr. Poobah” make Michael Bloomfield’s guitar felt in your bones. It was blues with a jazz sensibility. It was like “jump blues” was invented by these guys. It was the blues but it sounded all new and it sounded more rock and roll than anything that had come before. The Animals, The Yardbirds and The Zombies wanted to sound this good. These guys just had the chops. Their first album is about as perfect as you’re going to find in blues rock. If you haven’t heard it, do yourself a favor and pick it up immediately.
While it’s easy to think the first album was the peak, just to blow our minds, they followed up with their second album, a true masterpiece, “East-West.” The title track, which ends the album, is a 13 minute work of genius that Bach would envy. Influenced by Eastern, Indian raga and blended with Western blues, its simply one of the greatest pieces of music ever. The Stones even responded with their own epic blues jam “Going Home” which lasted 11 minutes. The Butterfield Blues Band had expanded the limits of what was possible. Jam bands like the Grateful Dead spun their heads around and thought, “hey, we can noodle on and on and get away with it.” The Butterfield Blues Band created the entire jam movement with one song. Bloomfield, Bishop and Butterfield all solo on the song, guitar, harmonica and guitar. It’s like a religious awakening hearing “East-West.” It’s the entire buddhist sixties ethos in a 13 minute song. There would be no Cream without “East-West.”
Other than the epic title track, the second album covers the waterfront of American roots music – from blues covers, Robert Johnson’s “Walkin’ Blues” to R&B, Allen Toussaint’s “Get Out Of My Life, Woman,” they prove they can do anything. The traditional blues song “I’ve Got a Mind to Give Up Living” is as mournful as the blues can get. Shit, they even cover Mike Nesmith’s “Mary, Mary.” This band was clicking on all cylinders at this point.
Alas, the incendiary talents in this band couldn’t hold the group together. After “East-West” Bloomfield split to form Electric Flag. Bishop soon followed to start his solo career. Bloomfield also did the seminal “Super Sessions” LP with Al Kooper, his old pal from the Dylan days. Bloomfield, like myself a life long insomniac, ran away from the early guitar hero fame and dissipated to the point of OD’ing on heroin. Butterfield made it to his 40’s but also succumbed to a heroin overdose. I like to think of the Paul Butterfield Blues Band like the stereotypical shooting star, bright and brilliant, but only burning for a short period.
Nobody talks about the Butterfield Blues Band and their two legendary albums, but it’s essential listening to anybody who loves blues, rock and blues rock. I can trace everything I like straight through The Paul Butterfield Blues Band. Do yourself a favor and check these LPs out immediately.
Cheers and Happy New Year folks!