‘Amazing! It’s finally here.’
Reviewed by Ed Ward
Michael Bloomfield: From His Head To His Heart To His Hands, An Audio/Visual Scrapbook (Columbia Legacy)
Amazing! It’s finally here. For well over a decade, Al Kooper has been talking about the Michael Bloomfield box set he was compiling, and now, at last, we have three CDs and a DVD, so we can say it’s come to pass. What we can’t say is that it’s a representative overview of Michael’s career, though. All you have to do is watch Bob Sarles’ film, Sweet Blues, a one-hour edition of which is on the DVD, to realize that. But it’s better than nothing.
For those of you coming in late, Michael Bloomfield was a rich kid from Chicago who fell in love with the blues as a young boy. Rock and roll was hard to find in Chicago, but blues was right there on the radio, blaring out of record stores, and even in the streets, if you knew where to look. Michael quickly realized that the guitar was the key to all of this, and acquired one as quickly as possible, thereby enraging his father, the owner of one of America’s top restaurant-supply companies, who wanted his oldest son to take over when he retired.
“I started playing the guitar when I was thirteen years old, and I was very bad for two or three years, and when I was about fifteen and a half, I got great,” he told me in a 1974 interview for a Creem article that never happened. He was mostly right: he still had hard lessons to learn about which notes to leave out (as he also noted during that interview), but he was on his way. You can hear all that was good and bad about him on “Hammond’s Rag,” an instrumental on this collection’s first disc, Michael showing off for John Hammond, Sr., who was thinking of signing him to Columbia. You can hear why he passed: too many ideas, albeit rendered at a speed and accuracy few 19-year-olds could muster.
And good thing he passed, too: once Michael didn’t have to satisfy himself with hanging outside the front door of blues clubs, he was in them with some other kids his age: Paul Butterfield, a lawyer’s son who was already a harmonica master; Nick Gravenites, a tough Greek kid; Norman Dayron, who took his tape recorder to the clubs and documented a lot of this music. Occasionally, Butterfield or Bloomfield would be called on stage for a number. Butterfield had put his own racially mixed band together, and he’d gotten an offer from Elektra Records. He needed a piano player, and asked Bloomfield, but when it became obvious that Elvin Bishop, Butterfield’s guitarist, couldn’t do it all himself, he put Michael in as second guitarist.
It’s almost impossible to explain now the impact the first Paul Butterfield Blues Band album, released on an impeccably acoustic-folkie label, had on the folk scene. First, it nailed the coffin on the “can a white man play the blues” argument. Second, nobody had ever heard anything like it, mostly because folkies ignored electric blues from the beginning. And when the band appeared to back Bob Dylan at the 1965 Newport Folk Festival, the moment Dylan “went electric,” they made history. Offered the lead guitar spot in Dylan’s electric band, Michael wisely chose to stay with Butter, and the band’s second album, East-West, challenged any improvising band to beat it.
Michael left Butterfield after that and formed the Electric Flag with Gravenites, teenaged drummer Buddy Miles, and a horn section. Plagued with drug problems, it fell apart, and Michael retreated to his home in Mill Valley, California, where he battled his twin demons, heroin and insomnia. During this period, he recorded a couple of jam albums with Al Kooper, one of which, Super Session, sold very, very well. But although he eventually kicked heroin and alcohol, he was found dead in his car on February 15, 1981 with a mysterious cocktail of drugs in his system.
The collection’s three CDs are labeled “Roots,” “Jams,” and “Last Licks,” and each one is a mess. Most of the first CD is previously available, except two backing tracks for Bob Dylan’s Highway 61 Revisited album. The early Hammond demos are interesting, but not much more, and the unissued Electric Flag tracks don’t do much to enhance the band’s reputation.
The second disc is all Kooper/Bloomfield material, and a reminder that jamming isn’t meant to last past the moment. You can hear how uncomfortable Michael is with the two (!) self-deprecatory spoken intros here. And the third disc will do nothing for Michael’s legacy, except for the electrifying live Dylan track whose story is told in the film.
My own suggestions? There are live versions of the Butter band doing both “East-West” and “Work Song” that cut the studio tracks, and belong on the “Jams” disc. There’s only one track from Fathers and Sons, where Norman Dayron put Butterfield alumni and some of Chess’ masters together for an album. There’s only one track from Gravenites’ My Labors album, which many people think is the great Bloomfield album that never happened under his own name. There’s a lot of studio work missing here, most notably from the great first Mother Earth album.
In short, this is deeply flawed, but it’s all we have. Sarles is talking about putting another half-hour onto his film, and I await that. If you’re a fan already, you’ll get this, but beginners will want to start with the two Butterfield albums, the work with Dylan, the Electric Flag album, and, if you can find it, Gravy’s album.
Ed Ward is author of Michael Bloomfield: The Rise and Fall of an American Guitar Hero (1983), soon to be available in a revised e-book edition from Multiprises and, possibly, a physical edition, too.