Tuesday, March 08, 2011

Michael Bloomfield

It might seem hard to believe now, but before cute English guys that could really play made themselves known on this side of the Atlantic (exception: Jeff Beck with the Yardbirds), _the_ hotshit guitar slinger was a nappy-headed Jewish kid from just off Lake Shore Drive in Chicago. Mike Bloomfield got his first guitar as a bar mitzvah gift and pestered his family's servants to take him to clubs where black musicians were performing. By 1965, he was fustest with the mostest, playing lead guitar in the original lineup of the Paul Butterfield Blues Band, which introduced folkies and teenage rockarollas alike to real amplified urban blues.

In the wake of "East/West," Bloomfield's raga-based extended improvisation that gave the Butterfield band's second album its title, came battalions of noodling hipis, but the band was also a seminal influence on the Stooges. It's true: When Iggy was still Jim Osterberg, budding blues drummer, he made a pilgrimage to Chicago to sit at Butterfield drummer Sam Lay's feet and play a few gigs before realizing that his true vocation lay Elsewhere. And just ask Raw Power guitarist James Williamson about the impact Bloomfield had on _his_ development. On Wild Love, one of Bomp's latter-day collections of barrel scrapings, you can hear Straight James jamming on Butter's version of Little Walter's "Mellow Down Easy" from the first PBBB album.

In a larger cultural context, Bloomfield was also behind the Telecaster when Bob Dylan cut "Like A Rolling Stone," a song many would say defines its era, and when Dylan "went electric" at the 1965 Newport Folk Festival, burning his bridge to folk purism. Like his fellow Dylan sideman Al Kooper, Bloomfield went on to form a horn band (the Electric Flag with Buddy Miles) from which he was subsequently ejected (Kooper's was Blood Sweat & Tears). The two then collaborated on an album of jams, Super Session, that remains the best seller in either man's catalog in spite of having been recorded on the fly in the manner of a jazz "blowing session" (albeit with more lucre changing hands). Bloomfield, a chronic insomniac, bailed from the sessions after one day of recording, leaving Kooper to complete the album with Stephen Stills, and also failed to show for the second night of a two-night stand Columbia booked at the Fillmore West in San Francisco to record The Live Adventures of Mike Bloomfield and Al Kooper; Steve Miller and Carlos Santana filled in, and Santana got one track on the album. (The little jazz samba Bloomfield essayed at the end of the Electric Flag's "Another Country" clearly foreshadowed Santana's entire career.)

Besides being somewhat unreliable, Bloomfield was also an erratic performer. After the Electric Flag, his recorded output is extremely hit and miss. In an interview on Bloomfield's website, his brother Allen talks about Michael's complex relationship with their father (who got rich selling the patents to some restaurant equipment), and how it made him ambivalent about audience expectations: "[It] became harder and harder for him to deal with people's expectations. He would really take it to heart if they were critical, and after a while he just shunned the spotlight. Oh, he had an ego, and loved to be the center of attention, but once people expected him be a certain way or to perform at a certain level – that was a real problem for him."

The first time I held the first Butterfield album in my hands, I was perplexed. Leaning against the wall of a botanica, these guys -- three white (Butterfield, Bloomfield, and Elvin Bishop), two black (Lay and Jerome Arnold) -- _didn't even have long hair_. Instead, they looked like greasers, mafiosi, _hitters_. Except for Lay, who wore a white T-shirt, jeans, and _silver shoes_, they wore dark suits with open-collared shirts. The music they played had a harder edge, too, than that of the Brit bands like the Rolling Stones and Yardbirds whose imitations of American blues I'd been listening to. Bloomfield nailed it, too, in a Rolling Stone interview I read not long after: "The Rolling Stones are a really good band, but, like, I consider them like a boys' band because they don't play men's music. They don't play professional music for men, they play music for young people, and even with their most intelligent material as a stimulant, they play music for the young." Or maybe it was just that Butterfield had a rhythm section worthy of the name. (You can read the second part of that interview here.)

Early on, there was a nervous energy to Bloomfield's playing, an impatience to get it all out that had the spirit, even if it didn't follow the letter, of contemporary Buddy Guy. Looking at the photo on the back of the first Butterfield album, you could see that he didn't even pop the cover off the bridge pickup on his Tele, and he had a thin, trebly sound, without vibrato. By the time East/West was recorded in 1966, he'd switched to a Les Paul for a warmer tone and he'd learned to "worry" those bent notes with a rapid, hummingbird-like vibrato. As time went on, he settled down and his sound got rounder, rather than going for the biting edge a lot of blues-rock performers went for. Here's his solo from a 1968 recording (released in 2003) where he duets with Johnny Winter, sounding like a precursor of the 1971 Allman Brothers until Johnny lets loose at the end:

Another good example of Bloomfield's mature style is this except from a 15-minute slow blues he recorded at the Fillmore West in 1969 with his pal, ex-Electric Flag frontman Nick Gravenites:

In the '70s, Bloomfield's recorded output was either folkloric, academic (he was a master of all kinds of blues guitar, acoustic as well as electric; If You Love These Blues, Play 'Em As You Please, which now sounds like an epitaph, was originally released by Guitar Player magazine), or commercial in some misguided way (an Electric Flag reunion; a collaboration with Dr. John and John Hammond, Jr.; the KGB Band, whose album included a cover of the Beach Boys' "Sail On Sailor"). A lot of the impact he had on me personally came from interviews he did -- the Rolling Stone one referred to above, and others he did with Guitar Player in 1975 (big chunks of which David Henderson "borrowed" for his 1979 Hendrix bio) and 1979. He always spoke about music and other musos with great knowledge and enthusiasm that I found inspiring. It was a sad day when he checked out from a heroin overdose on February 15, 1981.


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