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Archive for February 5th, 2014

Review: Michael Bloomfield, “From His Head to His Heart to His Hands”

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mike-bloomfield-box“I think we’ve exploited you enough.  I just want you to know I’m signing you!”  With those words, spoken by John Hammond Sr. and heard on the first disc of Legacy Recordings’ new 3-CD/1-DVD box set From His Head to His Heart to His Hands, Michael Bloomfield became a Columbia Records recording artist.  Though he died in 1981 at the age of 37, the blues guitarist extraordinaire left behind a substantial body of work in a variety of musical settings.  Perhaps he never fulfilled the entirety of his tremendous promise, having battled personal demons for much of his too-short life.  But the “sweet blues” left behind by Bloomfield speaks volumes in this invitingly personal “Audio/Visual Scrapbook” curated by his longtime friend and collaborator Al Kooper.

The three discs of From His Head to His Heart to His Hands are helpfully organized in rough chronological fashion as “Roots,” “Jams” and “Last Licks.”  It starts at the very beginning – always a very good place to start, natch – with three previously unreleased from the birth of Bloomfield’s career, recorded at an audition session for the legendary Hammond.  Although the Chicago-born Bloomfield was just in his early twenties, he had already soaked up the essence of that city’s storied blues.  Hammond clearly cottoned to the young man’s mastery of the guitar.  Accompanied only by bassist Bill Lee, Bloomfield showed off the styles which he had perfected, including Merle Travis-inspired “ragtime” guitar.  He also introduced Hammond to his guttural, growled vocals; as a singer, Bloomfield was a tremendous guitarist!  But if his voice was rough around the edges, it was – like his virtuosic guitar playing – all heart.

Kooper’s tour of Bloomfield’s early years continues with raucous live blues, recorded (where else?) in Chicago with fellow white bluesman Charlie Musselwhite, and then with a powerful one-two-three punch of sessions with Bob Dylan, The Paul Butterfield Blues Band and The Electric Flag.  The newly-remixed backing track of Dylan’s revolutionary “Like a Rolling Stone” shows how deft Bloomfield’s country-western lead guitar could be in a band setting – subtle yet forceful and distinctive, so well-integrated with Kooper’s washes of organ, Dylan’s guitar and harmonica, Bobby Gregg’s booming, thunderous drums, Joe Mack’s anchoring bass, and Paul Griffin’s ironically rollicking barroom piano.

A previously unreleased alternate version of “Tombstone Blues” with Columbia recording artists The Chambers Brothers on backing vocals is another thrill. (This is not same take previously issued on The Bootleg Series Vol. 7: No Direction Home.)   Bloomfield’s searing rockabilly-meets-the-blues lead and The Chambers’ earthy backups add to the gritty authenticity of Dylan’s dark, oblique, impressionistic story with its references to Ma Rainey, Beethoven and Cecil B. DeMille.  This “Tombstone” is yet another example of how Dylan synthesized so many styles of music into something utterly new and shocking – and how integral Bloomfield was to the singular sound of Highway 61 Revisited.

Dylan plays a major role, too, bookending the set.  A never-before-released live track from San Francisco circa 1980 is a bittersweet treat.  It’s prefaced by a touching, affectionate introduction that leaves one hankering for the days when Bob would actually address the audience in concert.   Dylan storms and seethes through “The Groom’s Still Waiting at the Altar” with Bloomfield smoothly ingratiating himself into the band with a smoking turn alongside guitarist Fred Tackett (Jimmy Webb, Little Feat) and the gospel backing vocals of Clydie King and company.  As with Kooper, Bloomfield was so sympathetic to Dylan that his instrument could translate and express his musical partner’s vision as his own.

Bloomfield had a similar connection with Paul Butterfield, sharing guitar duties with Elvin Bishop on the driving blues-with-a-beat of “Born in Chicago” and the torrid my baby-up-and-left-me “Blues with a Feeling” (both from 1965’s The Paul Butterfield Blues Band).  The sequence of the Butterfield tracks builds to the 13+-minute jam “East/West.”  One can hear the roots of Santana in the Latin vibe of its opening strains.  It builds in fury and fire, with Bloomfield’s guitar leading a small, electric (and electrifying) group that packs the power of a blues orchestra.  He evinces the variety and invention of a jazz improviser as the song shifts moods as he builds solos on a single chord and creatively performs them in different scales.

The guitarist’s early arc culminates, at the conclusion of Disc One, with a brace of performances with The Electric Flag.  There’s still a certain incongruity to Mike Bloomfield leading a horn band; Al Kooper points out the similarity to his own history in his entertaining introductory note.  (Both men left their “outré blues bands” to form horn bands and then exited those horn bands after just one album!)  The Flag largely resisted the temptations of pop, however.  Proof can be found on the two scorching live tracks here, both of which are previously unreleased.  Perhaps “blues with horns” was simply a concept too far ahead of its time; the Kooper-founded Blood, Sweat and Tears and Chicago both proved the viability of jazz-rock with horns (and had massive success when marrying that sensibility to pop melodies).  Five selections from The Electric Flag do, however, demonstrate the band’s versatility.  Yet the Electric Flag was too short-lived (and as the liner notes reveal, too plagued by drugs and interpersonal problems) to fully succeed.   But even for just a while, Bloomfield, Harvey Brooks, Nick Gravenites, Barry Goldberg, Buddy Miles and co. created one hell of a joyful noise.

After the jump: much more on Mike’s blues! Read the rest of this entry »

Written by Joe Marchese

February 5, 2014 at 10:49