Saturday, November 16, 2013

Michael Bloomfield – If You Love These Blues

First heard the Paul Butterfield blues band early in the summer of love 1967. We lent the record among our crew. For us they were something of a sleeper among the tremendous abundance of creative bands at the time.

Certainly different in that they were closer to the roots of street expression - more so than some of the crimson and chiffon butterfly "psychedelicists" that were about. That year I caught on to Taj Mahal, Canned Heat, the Dirty Blues Band and the Butterfield Blues Band, whose lead guitar player, Mike Bloomfield, was a very big notch above anyone else on an instrument that was coming to define the era.

He was the first rock guitar hero, ahead of Eric Clapton and Jimi Hendrix, and held the mantle, Mickey, at least for a while. When I re-imagined Black Orpheus ( itself a reimagining of Orpheus in the underground) I imagined Mike Bloomfield as the Pan-like protagonist, probably having learned by then that his guitar was the transcendental and evocative lightning on many of Bob Dylan's great works.

It is with the Electric Flag- formed by Bloomfield after leaving Butterfield in '67 - that the Bloomfield ascendancy started to flatten - Electric Flag quickly broke up, as drugs took a toll there and across the electric land of the nascent renaissance. The slow ebb down and the exciting rocket up are closely shown in Michael Bloomfield – If You Love These Blues - a 2013 Miller Freeman book by Jan Mark Wolkin and Bill Keenem. 

This is an oral history, with comments by Charlie Musselwhite, Mark Natflin, Elvin Bishop, Carlos Santana, B.B. King and many others. Their stories have a blues poetry about them. Bloomfield's comments, too, appear from time to time, bracketed in grains of salt – the other contributors, though largely showing warm appreciation of Bloomfield, help establish the notion that he tended to exaggerate, if not outright lie, for the sake of a good story or good time.

The pages show Bloomfield as true blues scholar, an advocate for the original blues players from whom he learned often at first hand, a  temperamental artiste and a very open hearted musician. His sense of dynamics and cutting on guitar were unmatched. His performance with Electric Flag (Wine, Wine, Wine) at the 1967 Montgomery Pop Festival is a visual representation of his vibrant attack. As Norman Dayron comments in the book (p.31), "The music just danced out of him."

Bloomfield (p.23) describes the Chicago SouthSide blues clubs noisy and electric (something that, in the late '70s, I saw, and that I was surprised by, after myself  hushing loud people in crowds for blues shows in the East). Even though they might all share one amp, it was loud, not like folk music. A great acoustic piano player like Otis Spann had to play electric piano to be heard. Bands played from 10 to 4 - 7 sets. Bloomfield was down there well before he turned 17 and he fell in love with the blues music and life.  He and like white blues players of Chicago got tremendously good – the Butterfield band then, it seems, when they got to San Francisco and the Fillmore in 1967, were way better musicians for the SouthSide experience and they - particularly Bloomfield – were mentors for the San Francisco bands.

The commentary narratives  ring true. Bloomfield (p.25) describes the effect of the music of Muddy Waters:

I would go down the street, and from two blocks away I'd hear that harmonica come out of the club. I'd hear that harp, and I'd hear Muddy's slide. I'd be tremblin'. It be like a dog in heat. I didn't know what to do. I'd get into that place and I'd be all a-quiver.

The book has plenty of room for Bloomfield colleagues to tell their own stories along the way. Charlie Musselwhite, for example, (p. 55) comes up from Memphis. Gets to playing harp. Waiting for a bus and gets a job at the Jazz Record Mart on Grand and State. Bloomberg comes to hang out. They play records all afternoon. Laughing. [Oh the days of Goofitude!]

But Musselwhite mentions that Bloomfield could be strange too. He didn’t really respect other people's property (or even his own, really), to the extent that he would take Musselwhite's record, and leave them at the next place he stopped. Musselwhite would find his own records at other friends' houses as a result. Says Musselwhite: "Mike never let the truth get in the way of a good story."

The genre of oral history has its pros and cons. It certainly is a quick read. In Michael Bloomfield – If You Love These Blues, the pacing and variety of the sources is exceptionally handled, in order to form a comprehensive narrative of Bloomfield's sparkling musical ascent and, in the end, his tragic personal failure. If you love the blues, I'd expect you would quite appreciate this book.

Note 1.  Butterfield, Bloomfield and their buddies were certainly a special class of beatnik hipsters.  Muddy Waters and B.B. King were the gurus in the stupa.  And the young players were there evangelist disciples. People I got to know via the Soulville record shop in Racine, seventy-five miles north of Chicago, were also of this school. One, Norman Wilde, did his best to evangelize with 45s the blues gods to me, for which I am so grateful.
Note 2. I'd seen bits from a conversational Bloomfield bio in process years ago. This was done or curated by Larry Sloman, maybe for High Times magazine. But it was incredibly sad piece. Focused much on the boasting of a probably inebriated Bloomfield, and focused on the downside and slop of the ghetto – a slop that is there but very often redeemed. Some of the underpants of the underside is in Michael Bloomfield – If You Love These Blues but it is much more tenured here with human compassion.
Note 3. The note about missing records above (Musselwhite) resonates here. I lent 20 to 30 records to S. McF in 1977 for a party and, that is all she wrote, expect its always on my mind (Big Brother, Buffallo Springfield, and so on). Of course, McF did hip me to Mission Hill, and it was probably "the girlfriend's fault."
Note 4. My Dragon voice recognition software heard something in the ether – it seldom gets to write its own story so:
"And him and him only a you and you run a you a you a their own affairs.
"Stuff a rental record label is as you see you are were were little white lie is usually a you are you
" presently you are well only one jersey one moment the the are shooting only one brave enough to
"so is really and I have neglected already is using a country as an emotional show today
"at all and ahead and you will a you a you yeah and will you
"him him him him him him him him him and him and him and him (coughing)

"and he he is is is is is is is is is is a you are him and him and him him him him on. "


Unknown said...
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Unknown said...

Excellent review Jack.

I think some of his work on Super Session and The first Electric Flag record are fantastic. Listen to his solo on "Texas," EF.

I had the great fortunate of playing with Bloomfield for one month, Nov. 1972. I was 21 and on the road from Racine, Wisconsin with Chicago blues pianist/vocalist great Sunnyland Slim. Bloomfield agreed to play with us for that month in the SF Bay area to help Sunnyland get good-paying gigs.

I can attest that Bloomfield was passionate about and generous with his blues knowledge. 41 years later I am still playing drums in Humboldt County, California. I think all the time about the advice and knowledge he gave me on becoming a skilled and artistic drummer.

He was a major artistic influence in my life.

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