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Tuesday, November 24, 2015

The Butterfield Blues Band: The Paul Butterfield Blues Band

THE BUTTERFIELD BLUES BAND: THE PAUL BUTTERFIELD BLUES BAND (1965)

1) Born In Chicago; 2) Shake Your Money Maker; 3) Blues With A Feeling; 4) Thank You Mr. Poobah; 5) I Got My Mojo Working; 6) Mellow Down Easy; 7) Screamin'; 8) Our Love Is Drifting; 9) Mystery Train; 10) Last Night; 11) Look Over Yonders Wall.

Eric Clapton had said in interviews that when Cream crossed over to America and began looking around, they basically just thought all those new bands were shit — with the exception of the Butterfield Blues Band, which, he admitted, was the only real competition that the haughty Brits had over there. Whether he was exaggerating or not, and what this was really supposed to mean, is up to you to determine, but the curious fact is, when you come to think about it, there weren't really that many «blues-rock» type bands in the States circa 1964-66. Folk rock, yes, with the Byrds serving as godfathers of the genre; psychedelic jamming, yes; garage-pop, yes, plenty of it, but the blues were largely left over for the British invaders to take. Strange, isn't it, when you come to think about it? As if all these white kids were afraid that The King Gang (Albert, Freddie, and B. B.) would start smashing their windows at night and putting holes in their tires if they tried stepping on their local turf.

Thus, in a way Paul Butterfield (and, coming a wee bit later, The Blues Project, who were their principal and not very successful competition) was filling an empty niche in his own native country — of course, few people were more qualified to do it than Butterfield, who was so much born in Chicago that the first song on his first album was appropriately named ʽBorn In Chicagoʼ, the second song covered Elmore James, the third song covered Little Walter, and by the time the fourth song came along, you were pretty much all set. And having been born in Chicago, and having spent his younger years soaking in the blues atmosphere of the city, and having a good ear for music, there was no way that Paul Butterfield could not have matured into a solid blues singer who could also blow some real mean harp, perhaps a little less creatively than his mentor Little Walter, but not any less passionately.

However, the real reason people still continue to listen to these early Butterfield Blues Band re­cords certainly is not Paul, likeable as he is — it is young prodigy Mike Bloomfield, whom most people first hear on Dylan's Highway 61 Revisited and only few people bother to check up fur­ther, despite the fact that he may, indeed, have been the... let me phrase this carefully... single best white blues guitar player in mid-Sixties' America? yes, something like that. At the very least, Clapton did consider him his chief over-the-ocean competitor for a brief while.

The thing about Bloomfield, of course, was that he was really a young punk who somehow got stuck in the blues — a genre that, unlike so many other white kids, he was totally refusing to treat boringly-reverentially. He would play fast, loose, flashy, ecstatic. He could be the Jerry Lee Lewis of the guitar one moment, the Coltrane of the guitar the next moment, and swing in and out of the generic 12-bar mode at will. He clearly loved all these big Chicago dudes a lot, but he was not at all set to imitate them — well, maybe Buddy Guy could have taught him something spe­cial, but then there might also have been things Bloomfield could teach him back. In any case, the guy's crazy leads are the goddamn reason to own and enjoy this record, period.

Because outside of that, the album would mostly hold up as a historically important one — if not the first bona fide American blues-rock album, then certainly one of those that first comes to mind when you think about American blues-rock as a whole. Butterfield is a nice professional guy, but not much more than solid — he does not have that much of a distinctive personality, and he can't even pull off a perfect, Muddy-approved "got my brbrbrbrbrbrbr working" on ʽMojoʼ, which means that drummer Sam Lay gets to sing it instead (!). I certainly couldn't elevate Butter­field as a singer over, say, Mick Jagger (who may have been not as technical on the harmonica, but made a far better job of making your hair stand on end as a singer in those early bluesy days, for good or bad). And consequently, there's not much reason to prefer him over Elmore, Walter, and Muddy, or even think that he brought something extra to the table (he's not a particularly good songwriter, either, and he would never be able to acquire the same «lonesome schizophrenic genius» tag as his future British correlate, Peter Green).

With Bloomfield afoot and aloof, though, even the most straightforward Elmore James covers here, like ʽShake Your Moneymakerʼ and ʽLook Over Yonders Wallʼ, acquire an arrogant boyish fervor that makes them, I dunno, somewhat more rock'n'rollish in nature than the originals — not «dangerously» rock'n'rollish, like the Stones presented their blues, but «ecstatically» rock'n'rollish, just ripping through the stratosphere like there was no tomorrow. Likewise, he is capable of making the slow blues numbers interesting and exciting, sometimes even playing those scorching melodic lines simultaneously with the vocals, without caring whether they take your attention away from the singing or not (they usually do, for instance, on the «original» composition ʽOur Love Is Driftingʼ, which is really just one more 12-bar blues, but with more stinging on it than around a bear-attacked beehive). The two instrumentals, ʽThank You Mr. Poobahʼ and ʽScrea­min'ʼ, have Bloomfield and Butterfield competing, but as shamanistic as Paul sometimes gets on his instrument, he just can't match Bloomfield when he strikes real hard.

We should probably drop in a kind word for the rest of the band as well — Elvin Bishop on se­cond guitar (usually rhythm, but I guess he takes a few leads here and there), Mark Naftalin on organ, Jerome Arnold on bass, and Sam Lay on drums (the latter two were drawn over from Howlin' Wolf's own backing band) — but the best word that can be dropped in, I guess, is that they all manage to put enough swing in the music so that it don't sound too stiff and reverential. Lay, in particular, creates far more fuss with his drumset than your average Joe, and is also seri­ously responsible for the above-average energy quotient of the album; but the role of the drum­mer on a by-the-book blues-rock album is not too enviable by definition.

In any case, as far as «whiteboy blues» stuff from the Sixties goes, there are few records out there to beat out the charm of The Butterbloomfield Blues Band (as it should have been called) — Eric Clapton With The Bluesbreakers might be the only competition in terms of scorching fierce­ness (and certainly not those early pre-ʽAlbatrossʼ Fleetwood Mac albums with Peter Green that strange people tend to rave about). Even if the band would really find its own voice with the next album, this one is still very respec... no, wait, I meant to say «quite kick-ass, really», because, well, if your blues-rock doesn't kick at least some ass, you must be doing something wrong — like confusing it with a 17th century court dance, for instance. Thumbs up.

3 comments:

  1. Why would I listen to PBBB's Born in Chicago when Cream has recorded Crossroads?
    Why would I listen to PBBB's Mojo Working when Rory Gallagher has recorded version (on BBC-sessions) that totally annihilates it?
    Just because of Bloomfield being a nice guitarist? In september next year a certain Jimi Hendrix charted in Europe with Hey Joe.

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    1. Aren't you the guy that always extols the virtues of Ritchie Blackmore's guitar playing? Where's the reference to him in this comment? He probably deserves a mention, even if his studio career wouldn't really pick up until 1970, though as a live player he was pretty well known (enough for Pete Townshend to hate on his flashiness in interviews at a time when Deep Purple were relatively unknown in the UK, circa early-mid-1968)

      Not that I agree with your other points. Why should I listen to Robert Johnson's "Crossroads" when there's Cream's version, or Muddy Waters' "Mojo Working" when there's Gallagher's? If PBBB's versions were exactly identical, then there would be an issue, sort of like Fleetwood Mac's "Rambling Pony" which is just "Rollin' and Tumblin'" with new (and indistinguishable) words. Besides, Hendrix and Bloomfield don't exactly have the same style of playing. Would you dismiss a classical guitarist just for not playing like Hendrix or Blackmore?

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    2. These early PBBB works possess historical interest for aficionados of blues rock. If you've heard all of the early Stones and the one Bluesbreakers album that everyone remembers, you might consider moving on to the Bloomfield era Butterfield Band for a refreshing spell. Be kind to these dust covered old tomes, and break them off the library shelf for a quick breather every century or two!

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