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Tuesday, December 29, 2015

The Butterfield Blues Band: Live


1) Everything Going To Be Alright; 2) Love Disease; 3) The Boxer; 4) No Amount Of Loving; 5) Driftin' And Driftin'; 6) Intro To Musicians; 7) Number Nine; 8) I Want To Be With You; 9) Born Under A Bad Sign; 10) Get Together Again; 11) So Far, So Good.

The very idea of the Butterfield Blues Band releasing their first live album without Mike Bloom­field — or Elvin Bishop, for that matter, if we want to be chivalrous about it as well — seems so revolting to me that, you know, these guys would have to work real hard to compensate for the affront. And they did not work that hard. Live seems like a realistic picture of Paul Butterfield and his bluesy/jazzy friends at the time: a band that plays it tight, intelligent, and safe to the point of boring. The fact that the record came out the same year as Live At Leeds and Get Yer Ya-Ya's Out!, not to mention all the fresh blood like Led Zeppelin or Jethro Tull shaking down the walls, does not exactly speak much in its favor, either.

The main problem, however, is not that the Butterfield Blues Band does not sound «tough» when it gets out on stage — kicking ass and rockin' the roof are not, after all, obligatory requirements for a good show, not even in 1970. The main problem is that they give the impression of trying to sound «tough», without truly rising to the task. Case in point: ʽNumber Nineʼ, a lengthy, speedy funk-rock jam, with the brass section in full flight and Paul playing Aeolus, Lord of Winds, on the harmonica. You can literally feel the buckets of sweat coming off the players, but to no avail: Sly & The Family Stone or James Brown would have blown them off the stage in a minute. There is a certain level of tightness and coordination, but it does not feel natural, and eventually the brass section just begins going to hell, with the players falling out of sync with each other and almost hinting at free-form jazz — but then, neither is this too free-form to genuinely compete with, say, Eric Dolphy. It's all neither here nor there: a whoppin' big mess that becomes a real chore when you realize you have to endure ten minutes of it.

Naturally, most of the songs are taken from the band's latest albums: ʽEast-Westʼ is not an option, and there is not even a single fast, short, catchy blues-rocker from their past — mostly these ex­cursions into jazz-pop and funk territory, with a little gospel on the side (the awful singalong number ʽGet Together Againʼ, which, for some reason, strives to establish a black church atmos­phere in an L.A. club). ʽThe Boxerʼ, by the way, is not a Simon & Garfunkel cover (that would have been at least novel), but rather a new funky composition by Rod Hicks that provides the drummer with a soloing opportunity (the drummer is the boxer, see?), and the brass section with a chance to replicate the meticulous punctuality of The Family Stone (which they fail). The other tunes aren't even worth discussing.

What is worth discussing is the split that the public had with the critics — most of these latter day Butterfield albums, and this live one in particular, have always received a serious share of aca­demic admiration, yet sales were drastically slow, and if East-West still finds support among the connoisseurs these days, everything after 1966-67 seems to have completely fallen out, no matter how much the critics try to revive it (see Bruce Eder's truly glowing account of the Live album at the All-Music Guide, for instance). The reason, I guess, is that The Butterfield Blues Band play their program formally right. There are no serious lapses of taste here (other than in the ʽIntro To Musiciansʼ bit, which Paul delivers as if he were stoned, or dead drunk — maybe he was), there's energy, there's some originality, there's not a lot of pretense and quite a lot of humbleness. But there is never a sign that this is a band that's ready to «go all the way», you know. Ultimately, they just sound like any average blues-rock band with enough determination to go on practicing, no matter how much time it takes. And the decision to expand into jazz-rock and funk — genres that absolutely require that one «goes all the way» if one wants to make a difference — was pro­bably the single silliest decision of Butterfield's entire career. As a jazz musician, he's too sterile; as a funk player, too stiff. He was born in Chicago, and that is where he should have stayed.

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