Tuesday, August 22, 2017

Proof That Michael Bloomfield Is A Guitar God

by Gene Santoro, Music Aficionado: https://web.musicaficionado.com/main.html?utm_source=email&utm_campaign=WeeklyRecommendations#!/article/michael_bloomfields_14_best_tracks_by_genesantoro

PHOTO COURTESY OF GETTY IMAGES
When Bob Dylan went electric at the 1965 Newport Folk Festival, he made sure he had blues guitar god Mike Bloomfield at his side.
Of course! Bloomfield's fluid, dynamic virtuosity shaped pivotal moments during classic rock's creative surge.

His ear-opening forays with the swashbuckling Paul Butterfield Blues Band forged the template for future superstars like Eric Clapton and Jeff Beck. Lyrical, acerbic, exuberant, and aching, Bloomfield's guitar stings with vibrato and channels chromatic flourishes, which have shaped pickers from Duane Allman to Joe Bonamassa.

Bloomfield turned down Dylan's offer to join his road band - take a sec to ponder how that might've changed rock history - to stay with Butterfield. Then, burned out by nonstop touring, he bailed on that outfit, and in 1967, went - where else? - to San Francisco.



The Paul Butterfield Blues Band

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He had a dream: a horn-augmented band roving across America's far-reaching musical realms. The redoubtable Electric Flag was born … and almost as quickly, disintegrated, after wowing the 1967 Monterey Pop Festival.


Then the restless insomniac signed on with ex-Blues Project member Al Kooper for the jazzy jams called Super Session.

But in 1970, he simply stopped playing. You could say the blues' demons had infested his soul, as they did Clapton's: he'd become a hardcore junkie. Over the next decade, he'd come back to perform and record in spurts - until an overdose killed him in 1981.

His vibrant music remains, however - an essential sound in a tumultuous, expansive era. Below are fourteen of the best tracks that make Michael Bloomfield immortal.

"Blues With A Feeling" (1965)


The Paul Butterfield Blues Band

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The Paul Butterfield Blues Band, the first serious white electric blues outfit (anchored by Howlin' Wolf's ex-rhythm section), coalesced in 1965. Thanks to the legendary John Hammond, Bloomfield had recorded a few sides for Columbia (only released much later). But Elektra's Paul Rothschild produced this band's debut, after recording their minor hit, Born In Chicago. This cut, originally a hit for Butter's harp idol Little Walter, Muddy Waters' reedman, lets Bloomfield fire off his already formidable chops arsenal. Listen to how his supple riffs respond to Butter's vocals, how he replicates Muddy's stinging Telecaster bottleneck, how his agile timing finesses B.B. King and keeps you on the edge. He was barely 22, but he'd played with Muddy and Wolf, and they'd embraced him. "This was not just another white boy," Al Kooper later explained. "Michael used to say, It's a natural. Black people suffer externally in this country. Jewish people suffer internally. The suffering's the mental fulcrum for the blues." Until it killed him, it made him burn brightly.

"Thank You Mr. Poobah" (1965)



The Paul Butterfield Blues Band

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Here the guitar solo pays homage to Buddy Guy, Muddy's "adopted son," whose spiky, stuttering variants of B.B. King's style had developed into a unique voice. Guy was one of the black Chicago bluesmen who treated the rich white boy from Chicago's North Side not as just another thrill-seeking slummer sidling over to the South Side, but as a serious student of the blues. Bloomfield may have lived off his grandfather's trust fund, but his dogged persistence, wide-ranging curiosity, and prodigious natural talent drove him deeper inside the music than nearly all the blues-rockers who followed in his wake—as this cut's riffs and solos demonstrate, lunging, bobbing, and weaving with unexpected accents.

"Tombstone Blues" (1965)



Bob Dylan

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Dylan's band for his electric breakthrough album included Bloomfield and multi-instrumentalist Al Kooper. The galloping track sports Bloomfield's edgy Telecaster runs; and the stinging treble with quivering vibrato ferociously echoes the violent lyrics by stabbing and slashing in response. (You can hear how Robbie Robertson would pick up on all this.) Though almost all other pickers then were going gaga over the new and multiplying effects coming out, Bloomfield rarely used anything beyond his volume and tone controls, some echo, and his surgical touch, which combined to give him the enviably wide sonic range you hear on this track.

"Highway 61 Revisited" (1965)


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One of the funniest, most sardonic songs Dylan ever wrote gets the musical backing it demands here: somewhere between vaudeville and corrosive blues. Bloomfield's slide work punctuates Dylan's surreal vocals with that sweeping Elmore James chord that underlines the zaniness; note how he diddles the turnarounds, using the spaces for filigrees to comment on what's preceded. One of the key lessons Bloomfield learned from Muddy and B.B. and Buddy et al. is encoded here: his fills always play off the vocals and lyrics. Too few of the white blues guitarists absorbed that lesson as deeply and meaningfully. Here, dealing with Dylan, he finesses his schooling and combines flash with emotional resonance.

"I've Got A Mind To Give Up Living" (1966)



The Paul Butterfield Blues Band

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From the Butterfield band's sophomore outing, this minor-key blues tips its hat to Otis Rush, the great Chicago blues singer/guitarist who penned oft-covered classics like I Can't Quit You Babyand Double Trouble. The southpaw axman made a specialty of burning long, slow notes in minor keys. (Bloomfield later co-produced his 1969 album Mourning in the Morning in Memphis' FAME studio, stirring soul in Rush's blues.) There's only about a year between the group's first album and this follow-up, but comparing this cut to, say, "Blues With A Feeling," it's evident how much Bloomfield has grown in concept and control. Now using a Les Paul and tapping into its different sonic possibilities, he's extended both his tonal and musical range. Those smooth chromatic runs will be a staple of his playing from now on and offset the staccato bursts, slinky note bends, and nonstop riffs that rarely repeat an idea. His inventiveness is as staggering as his technique; at the time, only a handful of black blues guitarists, like B.B., Albert, and Freddie King and Buddy Guy, could outduel Bloomfield's endless bag of tricks onstage—and they'd be the first to admit they had to work for it.

"Work Song" (1966)



The Paul Butterfield Blues Band

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You could call this the first jazz-rock fusion track; it certainly threw open musical doors countless others would later stream through. Jazzman Nat Adderley had a nice hit with this funky blues. These electric blues pioneers plugged it in and whipped and wailed it into a completely different zone that presaged the variegated jazz-rock mixings and minglings soon to start. Maybe what's most astounding is how brilliantly tight they are, how at ease they seem navigating all the twists from section to section, as one soloist succeeds another. Bloomfield shifts how he rides the smooth-flowing rhythms, refusing to stick to a single groove, using triplets and syncopations and bitten-off phrases and running over bar lines with a mastery any jazzer would salute. The finale, where everyone trades fours, a jazz convention, is a marvel itself, but leads to a finale that's as unexpected as it is powerful: that last crying harp riff seals this brand-new musical deal with the blues.

"East-West" (1966)



The Paul Butterfield Blues Band

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Where to start?! If this was the only thing Bloomfield—or for that matter, this whole outfit—ever recorded, they'd deserve their spot in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Here is the moment when John Coltrane first seriously impacted the rock world. Roger McGuinn was recording his Trane-flavored solo for Eight Miles HighThe Grateful Dead were barely starting to mess around with Dark Star. But on this 13-minute cut, Trane's modal excursions found their first true crossover reimaginings, becoming the inspiration for a multipart instrumental portrait of American music that still hits like a piledriver. The arrangement is astounding for that (or really any) time: ranging over half a dozen musical styles or more, the band subtly repaints backdrop colors while soloists fire away, all over a simple bass line whose varied accents give it all the flexibility it needs to accommodate the blasts of change roaring over it. Bloomfield's sheer virtuosity here is, uh, mind-blowing. Sure, others did the fake sitar drone thang, but how many managed the velocity and melodic turns as well? It's impossible to mention everything, so I'll pull this up: the Dixieland concluding section, keying off Bloomfield's lead as other voices gradually emerge from the background, until finally they're all blazing away on the front line in counterpoint or harmony or simply in tandem. Much of the Allman Brothers' concept and catalog—and a lot of Dickey Betts' guitar approach—has its embryonic beginnings right here.

"Stop" (1968)



Mike Bloomfield & Al Kooper

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Al Kooper played with Bloomfield on Highway 61 Revisited, and thought, "Why not do an entire jam album together?" The result: Super Session. "Why not try and legitimize rock by adhering to [jazz] standards?" Kooper later wrote. He argued that Bloomfield seemed "inhibited and reined in" in the studio—a difficult point to make stick, you'd think, in light of East-West, but hey—it was the germ of this meeting. Ironically, Kooper's manifesto outshone some of the music it yielded. But this genial, soulful tune lets Bloomfield's guitar breathe differently and showcase some other angles. Bits of Curtis Mayfield surface; vocalic cries float, echoing those Jimi Hendrix subsumed into his style, then bend into heartache. If you wanna A/B Bloomfield and Hendrix, check out Buddy Miles (see Electric Flag below) singing this same R&B hit with Band of Gypsys.

"His Holy Modal Majesty" (1968)



Al Kooper & Mike Bloomfield

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His guitar voice and vocabulary, by now fully developed and utterly distinctive, is also so subtle you have to be as careful when listening to Bloomfield as to Trane: most of what you think are repetitions of phrases you've heard aren't. So hearing this 'Super Session' cut after, say, "Work Song" could make it seem a bit of a letdown. Maybe one reason is that Kooper's keys meander for too long. But the guitar work doesn't.

"Killing Floor" (1968)



The Electric Flag

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When this intriguing, suggestive Electric Flag album was cut, President Lyndon Johnson had escalated the Vietnam War to levels few had expected, the country was torn about by riots and demonstrations, Congress was fiercely divided, and the culture wars that still bedevil us were crescendoing into violence in the streets. In that explosive context, Howlin' Wolf's classic blues took on a whole nother meaning. Look, Bloomfield & Co. seem to be saying, THIS is the blues today. Of course, they unveiled this at the legendary 1967 Monterey Pop Festival, which was supposed to launch the next stage of California hippie dreaming. For a while, it almost looked like that might happen against all odds: Woodstock managed to become an instant myth just weeks before the Chicago police riots brutalized or jailed thousands of anti-Johnson protesters at the Democratic presidential convention—including universally beloved newsman Walter Cronkite. A year later, Altamont nailed that dream shut. But the music endures. Listen to Bloomfield's guitar twist and float and cajole and cry over the insistent rhythms, paying homage to Wolf's eccentric guitar monster Hubert Sumlin. And the horns—punching, swaggering, uplifting with all the soul they can muster from the redoubtable head charts dreamt up at Memphis soul studios like Stax. The Flag was meant to be an American music band, tackling the growing possibilities that classic rock's creative surge was unearthing, reshaping, offering. And for an all-too-brief moment, it was one of the best.

"Texas" (1968)



The Electric Flag

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Drummer Buddy Miles backed Wilson Pickettbefore his crossover break with Band of Gypsys; this was his vocal spot with the Flag. Listen to how Bloomfield can coax unexpected gradations of tone, or just suddenly swerve into a different sound and approach, as he flicks responses at Miles that end up having even greater nuance and vocalic subtlety than the drummer's singing.

"Another Country" (1968)



The Electric Flag

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Singer-songwriter Nick Gravenites, the Flag's co-founder, was Bloomfield's pal for most of their lives. Together, they created the band's visionary aspect, here dramatically expanding and reshaping a Phil Ochs song. Like "Killing Floor," it's both a specific response to the historical maelstrom of that time and a dazzling, transcendent piece of musical reinterpretation that makes vivid the apocalyptic feel hovering everywhere then. And it comes complete with wonderfully shapeshifting guitar sections.

"Hey Foreman" (1976)



Mike Bloomfield

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In 1976, Guitar Player magazine recorded 'If You Love These Blues', a disc with Bloomfield that combined performances with mini-lectures about history, techniques, and the like. And so we have this Jimmie Rodgers-style piece, right down to Bloomfield roughly replicating the Singing Brakeman's famed yodeling. A change of guitar pace too: he's playing slide on an acoustic Hilo Hawaiian guitar. Tasty stuff that proves he could still deliver surprises and open ears even during his drug-infested post-glory years.

"Blake's Rag" (ca. 1976-79)



Mike Bloomfield

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Another dazzling, unexpected side of the divinely gifted, if humanly flawed, guitar hero: ragtime fingerpicking. This one, from the late 1970s, is a homage to Blind Blake, arguably one of the very few fingerpickers who truly managed to make his guitar the piano's equal. Here Bloomfield shows he too can maneuver this style's pyrotechnics with idiomatic aplomb.