AL KOOPER: THE LIVE ADVENTURES OF MIKE BLOOMFIELD & AL KOOPER (1968)
CD I: 1) Opening Speech; 2) The 59th Street Bridge Song (Feelin' Groovy); 3) I Wonder Who; 4) Her Holy Modal Highness; 5) The Weight; 6) Mary Ann; 7) Together 'Til The End Of Time; 8) That's All Right; 9) Green Onions; CD II: 1) Opening Speech; 2) Sonny Boy Williamson; 3) No More Lonely Nights; 4) Dear Mr. Fantasy; 5) Don't Throw Your Love On Me Too Strong; 6) Finale-Refugee.
Al must have really been fascinated by Mike, considering how quickly he forgave him for nearly ruining the «Super Session» — just a few months later the two were back again, and this time decided to push the spontaneous inspiration thing even further by recording their next project live, in front of the demanding, but respectful audience of the Fillmore West. They booked three nights and everything went fine for the first two. Then Bloomfield's insomnia struck again, and he fled the field on night three, once again leaving Kooper in dire need of a quick replacement (Butterfield Blues Band veteran Elvin Bishop and a young Latin unknown going by the cool-sounding name of Carlos Santana filled the spot).
Needless to say, that was the last time Bloomfield and Kooper worked together (at least, on anything significant): too bad, since the resulting double album is such a fascinatingly attractive-repulsive document of its era that there is no doubt in my mind the two could have had a promising future. The concert, indeed, is a spontaneous mess, almost certainly underrehearsed, crudely recorded, plagued with missed cues, flubbed vocal lines, and a setlist that all but seems made up on the spot by drawing lots from the audiences. But what a delight it is.
If there was any idea behind this, it was a big one: to bring together all the loose strands of Americana and run them through the efficient processing centers of Kooper's and Bloomfield's spirit to show how two guys with two big hearts can move the world. They cover blues, jazz, soul, folk, R'n'B, rockabilly, and recent-format roots-rock — all that is missing is a little bit of country, bluegrass, and gospel, and since we do not have the complete setlists here, it is not excluded that something from those categories could have been played, too.
With this ambitious diversity, no one is probably going to like everything on here, but the trick is to distance oneself from the source material. Simon & Garfunkel's '59th Street Bridge Song', for instance, is played about three times slower than the original ("slow down, you move too fast" taken at face value) and is made about thirty times as grand and solemn, stripped completely of the light nerdy humor touch for which we all loved it in the first place. From this comparative point of view, the song is crudely butchered by a couple of dumb hacks. But in reality, what they did was simply borrow the lyrics to set them to something completely different, and quite inspiring in its own way, especially when Al hits those keys upon the final resolution of the chorus ("feelin' GROOVY!...") and plunges the world into soulful sonic mayhem, or when Mike takes advantage of the moment to deliver a solo of epic proportions.
Traffic's 'Dear Mr. Fantasy' sticks much closer to the original, but only until the free-form part, in which Bloomfield again explores mystical jazzy territory à la 'Her Holy Modal Highness' — and then, out of nowhere, the two start trading organ and guitar lines that mimic the hymn coda to 'Hey Jude'. There is nothing that 'Hey Jude' could have in common with 'Dear Mr. Fantasy'; the connection is completely ad hoc and uninterpretable, but hey, this is what artistic freedom is all about, and besides, 'Hey Jude' was so damn fresh back then — barely a month out, so, in all likelihood, this is the first documental case of somebody quoting the song before the cliché got old and stale. It makes no sense, but it's a fun decision all the same.
Throughout the two discs Mike and Al really play off each other in a competitive spirit, although normally they take solo turns rather than drown each other out. «Song-y» highlights include a marvelous, soulful rendition of 'Together 'Til The End Of Time' (with Kooper managing an almost tearful vocal performance, something he very rarely succeeds at in a live setting); «jammy» highlights consist of a kick-ass blast through Booker T. & The MG's 'Green Onions' and Elvin Bishop's guest spot — a painfully slow twelve-minute grind through a Sonny Boy Williamson number ('No More Lonely Nights') in which both Al and Elvin take proper advantage of the tortoise speed, nurturing each lick and punch as if a note weren't worth playing without proper sustain... heck, they almost manage to convince me, and I'm quite a speed-lover. (In comparison, the Santana guest spot, a silly rendition of Jack Bruce's 12-bar eulogy 'Sonny Boy Williamson', is completely wasted — Kooper moonwalks through the tune, and Santana hardly plays anything that could be suspected of genius).
That said, this is one of those stupid records that detail-obsessed professionals will be tempted to dismiss and wholesale-swallowing live-for-the-moment free-spirit aficionados will kill for. Two music-loving guys jamming on the basis of whatever gets in their heads — only in 1968 or so could a record like that cause anyone to pay attention. But once you get the pure professionalism, the passion for playing, the desire to experiment, and the overall quality of the source material on one side of the scale, I think that it by far overweighs that other side which includes all the technical deficiencies (and there are many, including brutal ones — why the heck do they have to fade out 'I Wonder Who' just as Bloomfield starts picking up steam? Did somebody throw up on the tapes in homage of the free spirit of the proceedings?). Unfortunately, it is the kind of genius at work here that you cannot lock up in a bottle and give a DNA analysis, like you could do with, say, something like a 'A Day In The Life'. Feel free to disagree with my thumbs up.
PS. Post-production trivia bits: (a) the album sleeve (for many people, its finest moment) was painted by Norman Rockwell; (b) Paul Simon himself volunteered to overdub some vocal harmonies on 'The 59th Street Bridge Song', allegedly fascinated with the results — talk about totally stoned, the lots of 'em; (c) apparently Bloomfield ended up in a hospital again, and you gotta appreciate the quality of playing from a guy who hadn't slept for several nights in a row — me, I can hardly find the proper keys on the keyboard without a good night's sleep.
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