THE BLUES PROJECT: LIVE AT THE CAFE AU GO GO (1966)
1) Goin' Down Louisiana; 2) You Go, I'll Go With You; 3) Catch The Wind; 4) I Want To Be Your Driver; 5) Alberta; 6) The Way My Baby Walks; 7) Violets Of Dawn; 8) Back Door Man; 9) Jelly Jelly Blues; 10) Spoonful; 11) Who Do You Love.
Along with the Paul Butterfield Blues Band, the Blues Project were one of the first American acts that consisted of young middle-to-low class white guys playing the black man's devil music, wondering how the hell it could ever have happened that they had let British young middle-to-low class white guys take this sort of initiative a couple of years earlier. They were less successful than Paul Butterfield about landing a record contract, only managing to have their first album out in early '66. On the other hand, unlike Butterfield's, their debut was a live one, recorded in November '65 at the Cafe Au Go Go in the Village — introducing the band at its rawest and wildest, and drawing inevitable analogies with the Yardbirds, who were also introduced to the world in full through a red-hot live session back in '64.
The original Blues Project line-up included Danny Kalb on lead guitar and vocals; Steve Katz on rhythm guitar; Andy Kulberg on bass; Roy Blumenfeld on drums; and latecomer Al Kooper on organ (Kooper originally played guitar, but ever since he first tried out the organ on the sessions for Dylan's ʽLike A Rolling Stoneʼ, the instrument was promoted to his personal good luck charm — not that he had any particular knack for that particular instrument). Last, but not least, was vocalist Tommy Flanders, whose cultural and social background put him somewhat apart from the rest of the guys (well, the names speak for themselves) and may have been responsible for the tension that eventually drove them apart even before the album was released.
The record is not fully representative of the Blues Project onstage — like most of the other bands that tried out the live album schtick at the time, due to format demands, they had to cut down on the jamming and improvisation and concentrate on relatively short, compact song-based numbers. Nor did they yet have much audacity in trying out their own material: other than Andy Kulberg's instrumental ʽThe Way My Baby Walksʼ, all of the tunes are covers. And for the most part, the Blues Project predictably covers... the blues: Chicago stuff from Muddy and Howlin' Wolf, with a bit of Bo Diddley and Chuck Berry thrown in for the extra energetics, and a Bobby Bland tune for a little extra bit of soulfulness.
On the other hand, seeing as how this is the Village, after all, it is only natural that the band's territory also extends in the direction of folk — with a somewhat surprisingly modernistic slant, as, instead of doing ʽIf I Had A Hammerʼ or at least ʽTurn Turn Turnʼ, they prefer to popularize imported fellow Donovan (ʽCatch The Windʼ) and the Village's own Eric Andersen (ʽViolets Of Dawnʼ), as well as redo the traditional folk-blues tune ʽAlbertaʼ ("...let your hair hang low..." and all that) in sentimental folk ballad mode (with a whiff of lounge jazz, perhaps). This certainly gives them their own twist, since even Paul Butterfield, not to mention the Yardbirds, preferred to stay away from the sissy vibes of folk balladry — but the Blues Project, from the very beginning, showed that it was not going to insist on taking its name too literally.
All fine and dandy, but how good are these guys, really? Well — they certainly have enough energy to rock the Café (although, judging by the rather limp applause, the house wasn't exactly jam-packed on those evenings), and they are smart enough to introduce their own tempo, time, and tonality changes into the songs, so as to limit the comparison angle between the covers and the originals. The singing, more or less equally divided between Kalb and Flanders (Al also gets to sing on the Chuck Berry cover), is competent, and the playing is engaging as long as it is possible to think of it in terms of «honor duels» between Al, trying to prove to Danny that his is the rocking-est organ in town, and Danny, trying to prove to Al that his is the flashiest and speediest style of playing on the other side of Eric Clapton.
The latter, in fact, is not that far removed from the truth: Kalb's parts are expressive, fun, and technically stunning for late '65, showing a clear interest in the jazz school of playing as well as the expectable Chicago blues lessons. The weak side is the thin, limp guitar tone, unfortunately, quite characteristic of all the pre-Hendrix era (and quite a few of the post-Hendrix era) American R&B-ers — of course, you had to be fairly careful with your feedback and distortion when playing in the folk-oriented Village, but in retrospect, there may simply be too little «power» here to properly capture the interest of the modern listener. Downplay that aspect, though, and Kalb's parts on such blues snarls as ʽJelly Jelly Bluesʼ and ʽSpoonfulʼ will indeed be second only to Mike Bloomfield (inasmuch as aggression-channeling young American six-stringers from 1965-66 are concerned).
And yet, this rarely feels like an album where everybody is doing whatever is the most suitable thing for them. The Rolling Stones (not always, but often) and, say, The Doors (remember their ʽBack Door Manʼ?) were able to capture and preserve the creepy-devilish atmosphere of these Muddy Waters and Howlin' Wolf tunes. These nice, bright kids from New York are not able to do that — they can host a friendly rock'n'roll party, and they can let off some steam, but there is no sense of allegoric «danger» coming from their renditions. In fact, the jazz-folk recreation of ʽAlbertaʼ, in terms of soul and feeling, easily trumps almost everything else that they do here — pointing out the general route which Al Kooper would soon start to take.
So, if it weren't for the notoriously exciting bits of Kalb / Kooper interplay, and an overall good chance of assessing young Danny's talents from several different angles, Live At The Cafe Au Go Go would not be much more than a valuable historical document. In fact, even with Danny, it isn't much more than one — mainly a teaser, and certainly no match for Five Live Yardbirds, the album whose model it loosely follows. Fortunately, the Blues Project still had some time left to ripen and come into its own, before the whole mutual-tension and lack-of-perspective thing would start tearing it apart.