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Thursday, January 7, 2016

The Butterfield Blues Band: Sometimes I Just Feel Like Smilin'


1) Play On; 2) 1000 Ways; 3) Pretty Woman; 4) Little Piece Of Dying; 5) Song For Lee; 6) Trainman; 7) Night Child; 8) Drowned In My Own Tears; 9) Blind Leading The Blind.

Although by 1971 just about everybody completely lost interest, I actually think that The Butter­field Blues Band's last LP is a slight improvement, in terms of energy and focus at least, over Keep On Moving. Of course, it was much too late. The «roots» market was wide open at the time, but it was occupied by a variety of fresh new faces, and Butterfield neither had the intimate sentimentality of Californian folkers like James Taylor, nor the purported depth and wisdom of The Band; and even if he made a serious effort to gain any of these, it would probably make no difference — he was already kicked off that train.

So this Smilin' record has no historical significance other than representing a last farewell, pronounced with a certain amount of musical dignity. There's a little less jazz here, a little more blues, and a lot more gospel-soul, with «Brother Gene Dinwiddie» (as he was now known) pos­sibly responsible for pushing Mr. Butterfield further in that territory. Occasionally, they have ig­nition, like on the opening track ʽPlay Onʼ, where bass, guitar, and brass succeed in locking them­selves in a tight groove, and it is in fact possible to get caught up in the excitement — when the brass section emerges in grand mode at the end of the track and gets diffused across the lead and backing vocals, the band almost manages to cross that invisible border between musical perfor­mance and spiritual celebration. Not quite, but almost.

(Amusing note: for some reason, many Web sources list the song as «co-written» by Butterfield with Kerry Livgren and John Elefante of Kansas! Of course, it's just a mix-up because of the latter two having a song with the same title on the Vinyl Confessions album from 1982, but apparently the mistake has virally spread over to dozens of sites — nobody even bothered to check that John Elefante was 13 years old at the time and had nothing to do with Kansas. And I'd be sad to find out that Butterfield ever co-wrote any­thing with Mr. Livgren, although, of course, that wouldn't be totally out of the question).

A couple other funky pieces here are worth hearing at least once, too: ʽ1000 Waysʼ builds up a slower, moodier, but still perfectly danceable groove, and shows that Paul's harmonica skills could be well adapted to funk from their blues origins; ʽLittle Piece Of Dyingʼ is a bit flabbier, but continues in essentially the same style, and if only the groove had some development to it in­stead of simply serving as a background for Paul's apprentice attempt at spiritual exorcism, it could perhaps hold our interest a little longer.

The rest is fairly non-descript as usual: needless covers of Albert King's ʽPretty Womanʼ (as de­void of eerie voodoo magic as their earlier toothless take on ʽBorn Under A Bad Signʼ) and ʽDrowned In My Own Tearsʼ (Paul has never been a certified member of the «I have covered Ray Charles and lived» club), jazz-rockish instrumentals that hurry past you like particles of office plankton on their way to work (ʽSong For Leeʼ, ʽNight Childʼ — beware, this song, too, in the world of virtual irreality often features a credit by «Oscar Peterson», even though Oscar Peterson wouldn't issue his ʽNight Childʼ until 1979), and competent, but lackluster gospel singalongs like ʽTrainmanʼ (which begins with a really silly invocation to NYC: "New York, New York... the bi-i-i-i-i-g APPLE!..") and ʽBlind Leading The Blindʼ, which at least ends the album on an upbeat note, rather than dissolving it in a yawny puddle of slow wailing.

The best thing I can say about all this stuff is that Rod Hicks is a really good, interesting, under­rated bass player — even on the boring songs, I find my attention consistently privatised by his nimble, adventurous lines. If only the rest of the band followed his lead and took similar flight at least half of the time, things would have been different at least in terms of energy and musical freedom. As it is, he did his best to save the band's swan song from being an embarrassment, but he was not enough of a magician to turn all his bandmates into inspired virtuosos — leaving them with little choice other than to split for good, once the record had sold its predictable fifty copies; and that was the quiet, humble, barely noticed demise of The Butterfield Blues Band.

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