Tuesday, January 01, 2013

In praise of Paul Butterfield

While you may not give a shit about who gets inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, an institution which seems anxious to co-opt all of pop music when it's opportune to do so, you might still find it a grave injustice that in 2012, the Paul Butterfield Blues Band failed for the second time (first nominated in 2006) to gain induction into said hall. Sure, Albert King made this year's cut, and Albert was a great blues artist, but for lots of folks back in the '60s, Paul Butterfield was the gateway drug that led to Albert King.

In general, though, posterity has been relatively unkind to Butter and his band. His son Gabe has been trying to get a documentary about his dad made for several years, while B.B. King biographer Charles Sawyer appears to have abandoned his plans for a book on the band.

As the generation with first-hand recall of the first wave of post-Beatle American rock bands that included the Byrds and the Lovin' Spoonful as well as Butterfield dodders toward its 70s, it's worth remembering how influential the Butterfield band was in its day. The racially integrated outfit's eponymous debut LP, released in the fall of '65, provided a harder-edged and more authentic answer to Brit Invasion urban blues copyists like the Rolling Stones, Animals, Yardbirds, et al. Butterfield's lead guitarist Mike Bloomfield was ranked right up there with Jeff Beck and Keef Richards in the early rounds of the "best rock guitarist" stakes, and Sam Lay, who played on the first Butterfield album, was the most individuated of blues drummers.

Bloomfield had played lead on Bob Dylan's "Like A Rolling Stone," which, along with the Stones' "Satisfaction," ruled the airwaves that summer, and he, Lay, and Butterfield's bassist Jerome Arnold (along with Al Kooper and Barry Goldberg) had backed Dylan when he alienated much of his folkie fan base by playing electric at that year's Newport Folk Festival. The nervous energy of Bloomer's playing pulled the whole Butterfield band down some exploratory wormholes. The extended instrumental blowouts at the end of each side of the second Butterfield LP East-West (Nat Adderley's "Work Song" and the original raga-rock title track) inspired loads of imitators, from San Francisco's folk-based jammers to legions of teen-snot bands across the Heartland, including future Stooges Jim Osterberg and James Williamson. The moment was short-lived -- after awhile, audience expectations put the damper on Bloomfield's creativity -- but it was a glorious one while it lasted.

Butterfield himself was a lawyer's kid from Chicago's ritzy Hyde Park neighborhood who'd gone to private school, studied classical flute, and won a track scholarship to Brown before a knee injury ended his athletic career. He and his buddy Nick Gravenites pulled tight in the folk music scene around the University of Chicago and started playing acoustic guitar blues in coffee houses there. They first ventured down to the blues clubs on Chicago's South and West Sides in 1957, the very year when Norman Mailer published his essay on the phenomenon of white hipsterism, "The White Negro." (Bloomfield got his first entree to those same clubs through the sponsorship of his wealthy family's servants.)

Hearing Little Walter, Sonny Boy Williamson, Junior Wells, and James Cotton up close inspired Butterfield to take up the ten-hole harmonica, and with his track runner's lungs, he'd soon learned his lessons well enough to take the stage alongside his exemplars. He could move that big column of air as well as Walter, and used the amp in similar ways to create a robust tone. He even sang with credible power, albeit with less nuance than Walter, Sonny Boy et al. Imagine the sheer effrontery of this North Shore whiteboy, daring to crash, say, Muddy Waters' stage. But he must have had what it took; by the time he formed his own band in the early '60s, he was commercially viable enough in Chicago's clubs to steal Arnold and Lay from Howlin' Wolf's band. When competing bandleader Bloomfield insinuated himself into the lineup, initially on piano, then on slide, before bogarting white Okie college boy Elvin Bishop out of the lead guitar slot, Butterfield was ready.

The Paul Butterfield Blues Band exploded out of the gate with Nick Gravenites' "Born In Chicago," powered by Bloomfield's brassy, ballsy, vibratoless Telecaster and Sam Lay's staccato cymbal-and-snare tattoos. "I was born in Chicago, in 1941," Butter blustered. (He really wasn't born until a year later, but Nick the Greek was.) "All my friends told me, 'Son, you had better get a gun.'" (At this juncture, the blues was still social music, describing the passing scene in some pretty rough quarters.) "Shake Your Moneymaker" misses the wild and wooly essence of Elmore James that Brit Jeremy Spencer would do a better job a couple of years later. Bishop takes a highly effective lead break that's the essence of simplicity. The interplay between him and Bloomfield on the cover of Little Walter's "Blues With A Feeling" recalls the early Stones' "guitar weaving." The instrumental "Thank You Mr. Poobah" features Mark Naftalin's cheesy organ. Butterfield showcases his control with big intervallic leaps, bends and wide vibrato.

Big Sam Lay steps into the spotlight for Muddy's signature "Got My Mojo Working;" with Billy Davenport supplanting him on drums, they'd adopt a different rhythmic approach to the tune (audible in the video above). "Mellow Down Easy" is taken at a faster clip than Little Walter's original, without its Latin flavor. Bloomfield's solo predicts Wayne Kramer and James Williamson while flashing some of the chops he'd also displayed on Dylan's Highway 61 Revisited. Side Two opens with "Screamin'," a gritty instrumental where everybody gets their licks in, and boasts two slow blues: the original "Our Love Is Drifting" and Little Walter's "Last Night" (Butterfield's best vocal here). Junior Parker's "Mystery Train" (on which Butterfield would later front The Band in Scorsese's The Last Waltz) chugs along as though Elvis Presley had never existed, and "Look Over Yonders Wall" takes things out with an Elmore-inspired fast shuffle.

For my money, East-West is one of the great albums of its time, on a par with the Animals' Animalization and the Blues Project's Projections. In '66 and '67, blues-based rock bands were starting to experiment with eclecticism and instrumental extemporization. On East-West, Bloomfield had traded in his Tele for a Les Paul, and his introductory solo on the minor-key "I've Got A Mind To Give Up Living" is a marvel of dynamics. Mark Naftalin played a lot of piano as well as organ, best heard on the Nawlins R&B classic "Get Out of My Life Woman." Butterfield's in fine voice and harp form throughout.

The album's arrangements are a lot more adventurous, taking a stop-start approach to Robert Johnson's "Walking Blues" and applying a vicious swing to Muddy's "Two Trains Running." Elvin Bishop's laconic vocal on "Never Say No" sounds like Ray Charles on cough syrup, while his solo on "Two Trains Running" is effectively understated in a different way. (I once saw Bishop open for the Marshall Tucker Band during his pre-"Fooled Around and Fell In Love" endearing hayseed phase; even then, his guitarisms packed heavy emotional guns, while seemingly teetering on the brink of chaos.) And yes, "Mary, Mary" is the same Michael Nesmith song later recorded by both the Monkees (!) and Run-DMC.

As great and as influential as those first two Butterfield LPs were, they sound like rock records in comparison with contemporary blues albums like Muddy Waters At Newport, Junior Wells' Hoodoo Man Blues, or even Muddy's Fathers and Sons (one of the more successful attempts at teaming blues originators with their rock progeny, the latter in this case including Butterfield and Bloomfield). Butterfield must have realized this and when Bloomfield quit him in '67, he reconfigured his band to compete with the horn-heavy outfits that B.B. and Albert King were bringing to the rock ballrooms and festivals of the time. To that end, he hired jazz musicians like drummer Phil Wilson and saxophonist Gene Dinwiddie, both veterans of Chicago's Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians, and a white saxophonist from St. Louis, David Sanborn, who'd studied with with avant-gardists Roscoe Mitchell and Julius Hemphill.

Butterfield played at both the '67 Monterey and '69 Woodstock festivals, although video from those performances remained in the can until the DVD era. (The catchy but unrepresentative "Love March" was included on the Woodstock soundtrack album.) My favorite recorded artifact of the post-Bloomfield Butterfield band is their 1971 live double album, recorded the previous year at L.A.'s Troubadour. To these feedback-scorched ears, the 1970 lineup stands in the same relation to their '65-'66 predecessors as Eric Burdon's War did to the Animals -- they're a lot more rhythmically assured and professional, grooving like a Stax revue on one tune, swinging like a jazz outfit on the next.

(Like Burdon, Butter was softened by acid, but unlike Burdon, he didn't have a string of hits to sustain his career like the one that keeps the diminutive Geordie expat pounding the boards to this very day. Instead, he developed a fondness for alcohol and hard drugs that, sadly, took him out way too young, at 44.)

While there's fine blues on Live -- a bravura workout on Little Walter's "Everything Going To Be Alright," a version of Charles Brown's "Driftin' and Driftin'" (a highlight of Butter's Monterey and Woodstock sets), and a "Born Under A Bad Sign" that's a showcase for B.B.-influenced guitarist Ralph Wash -- the album's great strengths are its jazzy and soulful numbers (the 6/8 "Love Disease," bassist Rod Hicks' proto-funk "The Boxer," the instrumental "Number Nine," the set-closing "So Far, So Good"). Butterfield even nurdles a little on electric piano on the gospel-blues "Get Together Again." The video below captures a performance from around the same time. Dig it.


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