The fervent, furious sounds of Bloomfield and Butterfield
By NICK TAVARES
STATIC and FEEDBACK Editor
With entertainment opportunities still heavily limited in these waning days of the lockdown, trolling the internet for records to scratch that music itch. With that has come a renewed focus on playing, inspiration and sound — just that great, living sound that can jump off of these records on a quiet Friday night.
And in these record purchasing adventures, I’ve been focusing on classics, trying to find good-quality copies of records from the 1960s and ‘70s without destroying my budget. That’s included finally upgrading from some of the CDs I bought in college and later ripped to my desktop to get that analogue warmth that has kept me company for the past year.
In the summer of 1966, the Butterfield Blues Band entered an Electra Studio with Paul Butterfield on Harmonica, Mike Bloomfield and Elvin Bishop on guitars, Jerry Arnold on bass, Mark Naftalin on keys and newcomer Billy Davenport on drums. They set out to record East-West, their second album as a unit, and came out the other side with a record that didn’t just pay homage to the blues of their native Chicago, but pushed the genre in new directions that differentiated them from other blues purists of the decade. And, it would turn out, it separated them from the other directions of electric blues to come later.
Early on, I gravitated towards the Butterfield Blues Band because of its namesake. I was getting further into playing harmonica and studying some of the greats from the Chicago blues era — Little Walter, James Cotton and the like. Paul Butterfield seemed like the American equivalent to all the British guitarists who had also absorbed the blues and pushed it into a new field. He was fluid and mean, but with a tone that was more amplified and distorted, giving everything he played a nasty but purposeful bite.
It took a while to come around to the realization that Bloomfield, hunched over his lead guitar, was every bit the virtuoso here, and then some. Like Rory Gallagher in the following decade, Bloomfield made his art without much in the way of electronic gimmickry. Distortion and fuzz and all the tricks of the psychedelic trade stood on the sidelines while Bloomfield channeled Muddy Waters, Buddy Guy and the Blue Note and Chess catalogs. And like his later work alongside Bob Dylan and Al Kooper, his leads are stinging and nasty and, at the same time, soulful. It’s just impossible to not hear him throwing himself into every song will full force.
The title track is what keeps this record from becoming just another curio of the 1960s, though. To call it “ahead of its time” is correct, because this is still out of time today. I’m not the most studied musicologist in the world, but I spend a good amount of my time in this realm, and where else is that kind of nasty blues harp sailing over and across those eastern-tinged rhythms, handing off to hypnotic guitar in some kind of warped modal meditation? It certainly wasn’t the case in 1966, and it didn’t seem to take off in any great way elsewhere. For all their moments of inspired improvisational chaos, the Grateful Dead never crafted a suite quite like this.
And that’s because this isn’t exactly improvisational. It’s structured into sections, building mayhem within well-defined boundaries. And where it lacks that kind of loose jam, it more than makes up for in freedom, allowing Butterfield, Bloomfield and Bishop to solo and build sections up to raucous heights before the six-man unit turns on a dime, brings the music to a halt and steps seamlessly into a new passage.
While a 13-minute instrumental opus is obviously notable, to take in the pure punch of these guys, I’d steer a new listener to “I Got a Mind to Give Up Living.” It’s certainly closer to the blues side of things than the spaced-out jazz of “East-West,” but Bloomfield’s ridiculous playing atop the band is impossible to ignore. And it’s the kind of thing that’s kept me company in these past few months. With live music still a distant thought, there’s a magic in these old recordings. They were more often than not cut live in a room with minimal studio tinkering, and it’s up to the musicians to get the message across in as pure and direct a manner as possible. Put this record on, drop the needle and they’re all there in the room, swirling across the sound stage and leaving an impact, 55 years later.
It’s been well beyond a year of living this life, more or less sequestered from most of what society would deem to be social, but it’s coming to the point where the expectation is that the curtain will soon be lifted, and life is supposed to resume as it was. But I haven’t hated all of this. On the contrary, there was a time not that long ago where, by circumstance more than choice, I spent a good number of my nights in solitary confinement with a pile of records to keep me company. There were lonely moments in there, but there were plenty of productive, enjoyable snatches of peace in there as well.
It’s not all solitary here these days, of course. And, thanks to the medicinal miracle of vaccination, I’ve even been to a couple of restaurants recently. But these nights, with the lights dimmed and the Fields Butter and Bloom reverberating out of the speakers in their out-there combination of blues and jazz, these nights are all right. I’d like to keep having them.
May 7, 2021
Email Nick Tavares at firstname.lastname@example.org