Saturday, March 21, 2015

The Paul Butterfield Blues Band

The Paul Butterfield Blues Band was probably not the first “White” American blues band though I do not really know of anyone else that could be classified as their contemporary back in the mid-Sixties. The Blues Project had elements of blues but also elements of psychedelia and pop. There was The Rising Sons featuring Ry Cooder and Taj Mahal, but it was never a “name band” in the way the Paul Butterfield band was. There were many White blues musicians, of course, although most of them laboured in obscurity until the blues informed the late Sixties and many of the new generation of San Francisco bands. There simply was no blues band as well known and influential as the Paul Butterfield Blues Band. It was also one of the first integrated bands of its time, with a Black bassist and a Black drummer to provide the engine room backbeat that is so important to making the blues swing and not plod. The tow lead instrumentalists were Butterfield on harp and vocals and the quite astonishingly talented and passionate Michael Bloomfield on lead guitar. Elvin Bishop played second guitar and Mark Naftalin played keyboards.

The band was good but at the time Bloomfield was the breakout star and all-round blues guitar genius at a time when blues guitarists were just starting to make names for themselves as virtuosos and not merely as part of the ensemble. That Bloomfield was damn good is indisputable.  Both Bloomfield and Eric Clapton were the consummate sidemen to older Black bluesmen on whose records they played.

My introduction to Bloomfield was as backing musician for Bob Dylan on “Like A Rolling Stone,” and for a number of other blues artists. I was suitably impressed. Then I bought The Band Kept Playing, the reunited Electric Flag’s album from 1974, and was still impressed with Bloomfield’s playing though he was not as central as he might have been. At the very least Bloomfield was the one highlight of an otherwise pretty mediocre album Much later I bought the CD of East-West (1966), the second album by the Paul Butterfield Blues Band, which is particularly important for Bloomfield’s “epochal” instrumental title track that combined blues with Eastern raga modes.

It was many years before I actually bought The Paul Butterfield Blues Band (1965) album and, in quick succession, The Resurrection of Pigboy Crabshaw (1967), the third album, recorded without Michael Bloomfield and the original rhythm section, and with Elvin Bishop in ascension as lead guitarist.

It is quite instructive to listen to the debut and third albums back to back as it gives one a good idea of the progression in blues the band made. On the debut Bloomfield is the lead guitarist; on the third album it is Elvin Bishop, who is good and quite tasteful but not with the same brilliance as Bloomfield. Also, the first band was a basic Southside of Chicago ensemble and by the third record a three-piece horn section has been added, which gives more of e Westside or even Memphis sound. Not quite the big band riffing of early BB King or T-Bone Walker but not far off. There is also a difference in the rhythm section that makes this album much more of a soul blues album than the hard blues of the debut.

The debut album is tough blues with the exciting, incisive guitar work of Bloomfield as the shining star of the show although Butterfield’s harp virtuosity is not far behind. By the third album the sound is mellower, soul-inflected and bluesy rather than hard blues.

Butterfield had not gone progressive yet.  Like John Mayall he moved away from the blues into a jazzier field, as if jazz is the more demanding, challenging and more artistic music, whereas it is trite that blues is the wellspring of jazz as much as it is the bedrock of so much rock music.

After several back to back comparative listens, I must admit that Pigboy Crabshaw, although different in sound, is by no means a distant second to the debut album. The band is on top of its game on both albums and both Butterfield and Bishop play superbly.

Until his death in 1980 Michael Bloomfield followed a tortuous and obscure path for the most part once he left Paul Butterfield, and either stuck to solo gig or got roped in, no doubt persuaded by big money, in all manner of superstar projects and reunions which he enlivened with his stellar guitar playing but probably was never wholly committed to. Elvin Bishop had a kind of southern funk career in the Seventies, with a hit or two, and then settled into the life of a blues elder. Paul Butterfield followed a long career path with many diversions until he, too died and is probably rated as one of the best blues harp players of his generation, and as much a populariser of blues to White American audiences as John Mayall as to white British audi3nces, with many stellar sidemen passing through his bands.

I love the blues and if my focus has generally been on the Southside downhome electric style of the Fifties, I am also keen on the mid- to late Sixties’ “modern” version of the genre of the younger generation of bluesman (by now very much the older generation) who absorbed contemporary soul and pop influences along with the ancient tropes. Paul Butterfield Blues Band fits into this period and notion and is of a piece with the Black blues scene albeit that, being a (mostly) White band it automatically appealed to the broader White audience to which so many of the older Black guys became heroes when the Black audience was moving away from blues to soul and funk, feeling that blues was too primitive and old-fashioned for them.  Musicians like Butterfield and Bloomfield brought attention to blues, preserved the old traditions but also pushed blues forward and innovated, in a way that had always been part of the folk process of blues.  For this the Paul Butterfield Blues Band should be lauded.  They also released some really good albums that are well worth listening to if you are a blues aficionado.