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Tuesday, December 1, 2015

The Butterfield Blues Band: East-West


1) Walkin' Blues; 2) Get Out Of My Life, Woman; 3) I Got A Mind To Give Up Living; 4) All These Blues; 5) Work Song; 6) Mary, Mary; 7) Two Trains Running; 8) Never Say No; 9) East West.

Butterfield's second album is often regarded as the band's high point — not just because it would be Bloomfield's last as a band member, but because, due to his instigation, this is as close as the BBB come to breaking the generic blues-rock mold. Just like Cream, already mentioned in the previous review, started out with the aspiration of doing a «pure blues» thing (at least, Clapton had that intention — maybe Bruce wanted them to do a «pure jazz» thing), but almost immediate­ly got caught up in the winds of time and drifted towards heavy rock and psychedelia, so it was almost inevitable, with the BBB's pool of talent, that they wouldn't be settling cozily in their sta­tus of «Muddy/Elmore cover band». At least, not in 1966 they wouldn't.

There is still plenty of pure blues here, of course, but even here they are experimenting, no longer content with merely covering the songs the way they were, but trying to reinvent them in a diffe­rent idiom. The results aren't particularly awesome — more like «curious», like when they do Robert Johnson's ʽWalkin' Bluesʼ as some sort of blues tango, or when they take Muddy's former­ly slow, threatening ʽTwo Trains Runningʼ and transform it into a boogie: unfortunately, they did not have the idea to conduct a sparring guitar match between Bloomfield and Bishop, which would have fit right in with the song title. In the end, my favorite «pure blues» song on here emer­ges as ʽI Got A Mind To Give Up Livingʼ, Butterfield's first attempt at generating a deep soul atmosphere, with Bloomfield playing straight from the heart, making the guitar choke with tears of rage rather than just go all fussy and crazy. Sharp, poignant, convincingly tragic, this is America's answer to The Animals and in this case, it might even be better, since Butterfield, un­like Burdon, never comes across as a theatrical poseur (sorry Eric — you are more interesting and gifted as a singer, but not as a haunted human being).

A brief mention must be made of such an oddity here as ʽMary, Maryʼ, which most of us usually know from the Monkees' second album — indeed, Mike Nesmith originally gave the song away to But­terfield before making use of it for his own band. It would be curious to know what the demo looked like, because the Butterfields present it as a swampy blues jam, all ragged and torn, whereas the Monkees naturally made it into a tight, jaunty pop number; the respective cherry-on-top is a shrieking, frenetic Bloomfield solo in Butterfield's version, and Davy Jones' smooth vocal harmonies in the Monkees' version. Neither of the two is greatness incarnate, but I like both, and I'm not altogether sure if I'd even want to make a preference.

Still, that's just the potatoes: the meat of the album, as any critic will tell you, are the two exten­ded, jazz-influenced instrumental jams. Wait a minute, influenced? ʽWork Songʼ is jazz — a stretched cover of Nat Adderley's most famous composition — and ʽEast-Westʼ, following in the footsteps of the Byrds' ʽEight Miles Highʼ, is rock's attempt to incorporate free-form soloing and modal jazz elements into its very soul. Mike Bloomfield may have made his reputation as a fla­ming guitar punk in Bob Dylan's 1965 entourage, but he had an intellectual drive as well, and ʽEast-Westʼ is as intellectual as you ever get with these guys. And considering how repetitive, drone-heavy, free-flying, and energetic ʽEast-Westʼ is, it is arguably the most closest predecessor to the Velvet Underground and their jamming feats a year later.

What is even more interesting, though, is that ʽEast-Westʼ actually has a cool, well thought out structure — over its thirteen minutes, it gradually moves from swampy blues into a decidedly Eastern raga section, then into something more close to country-western, and ultimately culmi­nates in a set of pop-rock riffs, starting with a variation on ʽMemphis Tennesseeʼ. This means that they took the name seriously, and consciously tried to integrate Eastern and Western traditions, to the best of their abilities, within the same composition. I have no intention of overrating ʽEast-Westʼ like so many American critics desperately hunting for proof that American bands were just as rigorously pushing boundaries in 1966 as their British counterparts, but this is a major mile­stone, and for what it's worth, as a lengthy jam, it makes a stronger point than Cream's jams, since its scope is wider and its ambitions are higher from the start.

Unfortunately, the happiness did not last long — apparently, this new direction and its conflict with the old one created too much tension in the band and finally split apart the Butterfield / Bloomfield partnership for good. In fact, it probably couldn't have been any other way — one more record like this and Bloomfield would be taking Butterfield's band away from him, despite not knowing how to sing or play harmonica. In a world that was less and less interested in retro Chicago blues, I guess, the only way you could still play retro Chicago blues would be to alienate yourself from fellow players who were only too happy to mix Chicago blues with Indian ragas. As it turned out, though, Bloomfield wouldn't be able to get too far on his own — all his attempts to create bands for himself (such as Electric Flag) failed, proving that he was far better off as a masterful sideman than a clumsy leader. Fortunately, East-West still proudly stands as a small, but exciting testa­ment to one of the finest talent pools in America and simply one of the best non-standard blues-rock albums of its era, so a thumbs up is inevitable.

1 comment:

  1. I don't have to ask why anyone should listen to the East-West jam. It rules.