THE BUTTERFIELD BLUES BAND: THE ORIGINAL LOST ELEKTRA SESSIONS (1964/1995)
1) Good Morning Little Schoolgirl; 2) Just To Be With You; 3) Help Me; 4) Hate To See You Go; 5) Poor Boy; 6) Nut Popper #1; 7) Everything's Gonna Be Alright; 8) Lovin' Cup; 9) Rock Me; 10) It Hurts Me Too; 11) Our Love Is Driftin'; 12) Take Me Back Baby; 13) Mellow Down Easy; 14) Ain't No Need To Go No Further; 15) Love Her With A Feeling; 16) Piney Brown Blues; 17) Spoonful; 18) That's All Right; 19) Goin' Down Slow.
Although the posthumous legend of The Butterfield Blues Band mainly lingered on in circles of «aficionados» and «connaisseurs», it was strong enough to trigger a large series of archival releases in the mid-Nineties — and for understandable reasons: most of these releases, like Strawberry Jam or East-West Live, were culled from live shows recorded while Bloomfield was still in the band, so as to satisfy the demand for Mike-era live material and have something to commemorate the band's finest incarnation on stage, rather than its latter day version with the brass players replacing the original guitarists. Unfortunately, all of these releases are bootleg quality: for some reason, the original band did not care much about being recorded professionally while in live flight, and most of this stuff is barely listenable, let alone reviewable.
In the end, the only archival release by the original band that is worth owning and talking about is the very first one — their failed first attempt at recording an LP, which they made as early as December 1964, immediately after signing up with Elektra. Not all of the 19 songs included here date from those very sessions, but most of them do, and since the band was already fully formed and included Bloomfield, and the recordings were made in a professional studio, this here is an indispensable acquirement for The True Fan.
The problem is, I can sort of see why the people at Elektra were not impressed. From a certain angle, these covers of classic blues and R&B numbers are not significantly different from the contents of The Paul Butterfield Blues Band — indeed, a few would later be re-recorded for that very album. The subtle difference is that in late 1964, this really was «The Paul Butterfield Blues Band», with Paul's vocals and harmonica always taking center stage and always being much higher in the mix than everything else. Basically, ladies and gentlemen, we come here to listen to the amazing Mr. Paul Butterfield do impersonations of Muddy Waters, Howlin' Wolf, Sonny Boy Williamson II, Elmore James, and particularly Little Walter — and there are a few sidemen playing, uh, on the sides, but they're quite dispensable.
There are only a few spots where Bloomfield is allowed to shine, and they're cool and important: instrumental rave-ups like ʽNut Popper #1ʼ and R&B dance numbers like ʽLovin' Cupʼ are probably the earliest known examples of the classic Bloomfield style, and even a small handful is enough to say that for that brief moment in late 1964 / early 1965, Mike Bloomfield may have been the coolest axe player in the West, and the only real competition to Mr. Slowhand of the Yardbirds' fame as the finest (white, at least) blues-rock guitarist known to mankind. But it is a really, really small handful — and it betrays jealousy, since on ʽMellow Down Easyʼ, for instance, Butterfield does not even allow him a proper solo: all the lead parts are played in the background and convenietnly muffled by the much louder harmonica parts. (On the 1965 re-recording, that would change, and Mike would get to slip in something purely his own).
To serious admirers of Paul's harmonica-blowing talents, this should not be a disappointment; on the contrary, I'd say that not a single «proper» BBB album features as much harmonica playing as these early tapes — where Paul is simply all over the place. But honestly, unless you really, really take your time thinking about how to use your harp in various creative / expressive ways, depending on the structures, tonalities, moods of the individual songs, a blues-rock «Listen To Me Blowing» type album is ultimately bound to sound boring, and I can suggest that the people at Elektra thought so, too. As competent as these covers are, Butterfield here is the all-pervasive imitator, and only Bloomfield is the occasional innovator — because at least several Chicago blueswailers played better harmonica than Paul (let alone singing), but no Chicago lead guitar players ever played a guitar solo the way Bloomfield does it here on that ʽNut Popperʼ thing.
For some reason, many accounts of the album try to increase its status by claiming that it was «one of the first blues-rock albums», which is supposed to boil up our admiration and at the same time to forgive the record its rawness, unevenness, and harmonica-heaviness. But the true expression should be «one of the first white American blues-rock albums» — British invaders like The Yardbirds and The Animals, let alone lesser heroes like Alexis Korner, had already been doing this thing for at least a couple of years; and in basic terms of instrumentation, there's really no reason why one couldn't apply the term «blues-rock» to the Chicago sound — I mean, Howlin' Wolf's recordings from the late Fifties / early Sixties certainly «rock» just as hard, if not harder, than these ones. A thinner drum sound, perhaps, but that's about it.
Still, there are enough historical and other reasons to at least be happy that the tapes were not completely lost, and that it is possible to trace Butterfield's story way back into late 1964. And, heck, when they really speed up the tempo and Paul is blowing away and the rhythm section is rolling and grooving, like on ʽPiney Brown Bluesʼ, for instance, it takes a mighty (anti-)intellectual leap to not get caught up in the excitement — at least a little bit.