MICHAEL BLOOMFIELD BOX SET
From His Head to His Heart to His Hands
Sony Legacy 88765476342
A Review/Overview by David Dann
Update 2/08/14: Appended at the end of this review are a few comments from Al Kooper.
A LONG TIME COMIN', I think it's fair to say. Mike Bloomfield fans and they are legion have been waiting two long decades and more for Columbia, now Sony, to get around to issuing a definitive collection of music by America's original guitar hero. There have been rumors for years that a Bloomfield box was in the works, but those rumors invariably proved to be only rumors with little basis in fact. Until now.
Thanks to the determination of Al Kooper and a committed crew of able collaborators, not the least of those being executive producer Bruce Dickinson, the Michael Bloomfield box set is a reality. Released just a few days ago (this is being written on February 5, 2014), the set has already risen to the No. 1 spot in blues music sales at Amazon, at No. 2 in the classic rock category and is ranked No. 13 in overall music purchases. Not bad for musician who for years was considered box office poison by the major record labels. Or so I was repeatedly told by a knowledgeable producer and friend of Michael's from back in the 1970s.
So what's the deal with this set, you ask. Is it any good, and is it really worth 50-plus bucks? The short and simple answer to those questions is yes and yes. The longer answer follows. A caveat, though, before I begin. I was privileged to assist in a small way in the creation of the box set, sharing whatever resources I have with the producers and with Michael Simmons, author of the engaging and informative notes that accompany the set. So I may not be entirely unbiased in my assessment of Sony Legacy's compilation just so you know.
First, let me say that the look and overall presentation of the set are excellent. As a design professional myself (whatever that means), I know a little about creating an appealing product, and the folks at Stoltze Design have exceeded expectations. As a former radio DJ, I can't tell you how many times I have strained on air to read the notes and personnel listings on recordings that have been given a "creative treatment" by graphic art criminals. Such is not the case here. The Bloomfield box is smart, elegant and very user-friendly. All of which goes a long way to imbuing it with an air of authority and credibility: Nothing half-assed here.
Three of the four discs in the set are music CDs. They cover three phases of Mike Bloomfield's seventeen-year career and are titled "Roots," "Jams" and "Last Licks." Let's take them one by one.
CD 1: "Roots"
1. I'm a
The three tunes that open the first of the CDs constitute, for a Bloomfield historian like myself, an extraordinary moment. They come from Mike Bloomfield's New York audition for producer John Hammond, at the time coordinator of new talent for Columbia Records, and they are the earliest examples of Bloomfield's playing that we currently have. Bloomfield's manager, Joel Harlib, had played Hammond a demo tape in late 1963 and the producer had been impressed enough to want to see Bloomfield in person. The session's date remains elusive, but it probably occurred sometime in late February or early March 1964. Michael's variation on the traditional "Poor Boy Blues" opens with a solo chorus typical of one he might have played with Muddy Waters while sitting in at Pepper's. Bill Lee, one of Columbia's session bassists in 1963, falters in the stops and is a bit too busy in places, but he generally keeps up with the young Chicagoan. Michael works through the verses, chewing up the words and spitting them out with growing ferocity. It sounds like he's playing an electric guitar (albeit one turned way down) and the choice of instrument is appropriate because the style of the tune is classic electric Chicago blues.
"Judge, Judge," on the other hand, is a blues from a generation earlier. Another variation, this time on Bessie Smith's 1927 "Send Me to the 'Lectric Chair," it features Mike on acoustic guitar, emoting for all he's worth. He jumps right into the lyric, skipping the verse, and after one chorus flat-picks a solo in campy ragtime style. The lyrics that follow sound like they're entirely his own creation and are a testament to Bloomfield's legendary sense of humor. The tune is one that Michael probably would have preferred to perform alone and, to my ears anyway, Bill Lee muddies it up. But "Judge, Judge" not actually a blues was doubtless meant to demonstrate the guitarist's broad knowledge of traditional blues and jazz. Bloomfield might not have been aware that John Hammond had produced Bessie Smith's last session two decades earlier, but if he was his decision to cover one of the Empress' tunes clearly shows how ballsy the kid from Glencoe could be.
The third selection from Mike Bloomfield's Columbia audition session is astonishing and, for me, the high point of CD1. This is what Nick Gravenites, Norman Dayron and the late Mike Michaels were all talking about when they described their first encounters with Bloomfield at Hyde Park's Fret Shop in 1960. The audition session sounds like it's wrapping up, but Bloomfield asks Hammond if he can do one more "for my own self-satisfaction." He suggests a Merle Travis-type tune and when Hammond asks, "Sixteen Tons?," Bloomfield replies, "No, not that, something cheekier than that." Cheeky, indeed. The 20-year-old announces the piece as "Hammond's Rag," honoring the producer in the control room, and then launches into a fleet, frighteningly pyrotechnic rag that for its entire ninety-second length must have had John Hammond sucking wind. After this clearly spontaneous and flawless performance, Hammond tells Mike that he's decided to sign him. Good call, John.
The next selections come from the first two recording sessions that Michael did for Columbia. "I've Got You in the Palm of My Hand," a Bloomfield original was waxed in Chicago on Dec. 7, 1964, and was done under Hammond's direction. The second comes from March 1, 1965 and was produced in New York City by Bob Morgan. The band for the first of these two tunes was The Group, an ad-hoc unit that Michael assembled to play at Big John's in Chicago during the fall and winter of 1964. They included Charlie Musselwhite on harp, guitarist Mike Johnson, pianist Brian Friedman, Sidney Warner on bass and Norm Mayell on drums. Columbia has always listed the same personnel for the second tune, but I believe that's incorrect. Norm Mayell never went to New York with Michael and neither did Mike Johnson. Brian Friedman was present at the date but recalled that the bass player was somebody that Columbia brought in. Musselwhite is the harp player, but I believe it may well be Elvin Bishop on rhythm guitar and it's almost certainly Sam Lay playing drums. Paul Butterfield was in the city at the time recording with Bishop and Lay for Elektra, and Bloomfield was frequently a part of those sessions. It seems likely that the members of Butterfield's group simply returned the favor and backed Michael up on his Columbia date. Give a listen and see if you don't agree.
Up next are the two well-publicized Bob Dylan performances. Dylan completists will want the box set for these alone, but Bloomfield fans are sure to find them of interest, too. The instrumental version of "Like a Rolling Stone" gives you a chance to here how well the musicians merged their sound on the only take of the tune that they completed. It's a marvelous document, completely familiar and yet filled with little moments that were obscured until now by the vocal line. Al Kooper has juiced the drums and piano, thus giving the piece a bigger sound, but I wish his part were more prominent. On that point I agree with Dylan "Turn the organ up!"
"Tombstone Blues" is a revelation. The Chambers Brothers join Dylan on the refrain, chanting in monotone behind him, but the highlight is Mike Bloomfield's searing electric guitar fills. The tune was recorded on July 29, 1965, just four days after Dylan's fateful performance at Newport, and it's easy to here echoes of Mike's rocking contribution to Bob's on-stage electric conversion. As Kooper rightly puts it, "This is some of the most scathing raw lead guitar that had ever been played since Link Wray." 'Nuff said.
On to Butterfield. The next three selections were recorded by the Paul Butterfield Blues Band for Elektra and have been specially licensed for inclusion in the box set by Sony. Much credit is due Bruce Dickinson for managing to acquire the necessary permissions for these seminal performances. "Born in Chicago," "Blues with a Feeling" and "East-West" are nicely introduced by Michael with a description of Butterfield from an interview done in 1971 with radio producer Dan McClosky. Because Bloomfield fans and even those who don't know much about Michael are familiar with these classics, I'll pass over them here. My only criticism I wish "Work Song" had been included as well. In a perfect world, that is.
In February 1967, Mike Bloomfield left the Butterfield band and formed the Electric Flag with his Chicago pal, Barry Goldberg. That band is represented by the three studio cuts and two live performances that close out "Roots." "Killing Floor" and "Texas" are from the Flag's first album, "A Long Time Comin'," the only one that included Bloomfield. Kooper has again done some remastering, pumping up the bass and drums and bringing out the parts more clearly. I only wish the original release had sounded this good! My only quibble is with the snipping out of Peter Strazza's brief tenor solo over the vamp just before the last verse of "Killing Floor." It was an interlude that built a nice tension before the tune dropped back into its standard shuffle beat, a device that in live performance the Flag would draw out for several minutes. Not sure why it was necessary to remove it.
The two live Electric Flag pieces offer a brief taste of what the band could do in live performance. "Susie's Shuffle" was named no doubt by the box set's producers for Michael's wife at the time, Susan. It's an edited excerpt of a Flag performance from a May 18, 1968, Fillmore Auditorium show. The tune is actually "I'd Rather Drink Muddy Water," sung by Buddy Miles between righteous solos by Michael. Those solos have been shortened and spliced together in a manner that mostly works, though the transition from one pick-up to another sounds a little artificial at one point. The removal of segments with the kerfuffling horns is a decided improvement, whatever one might think of Kooper's cut-and-paste approach. This tune was, by the way, on the flipside of Sticks McGhee's "Drinking Wine Spo-Dee-O-Dee" hit, another song covered by the Flag on their first album (as "Wine").
"Just A Little Something (Live)" is another excerpt from a much longer Electric Flag performance, ostensibly "Funky Broadway" as the notes and Buddy Miles' brief vocal indicate. But it also sounds to me like the vamp that was often appended to Nick Gravenites' "It's About Time," a jam that featured epic Bloomfield solos similar to those in "East-West." Hardcore Bloomfield fans will recall that "It's About Time" served as the basis for "East-West," and Michael's runs here very much evoke the modal experimentations of that Butterfield recording. Those unfamiliar with Michael's use of exotic scales will find this short selection a tantalizing glimpse into territory that no other rock guitarist at the time was exploring. The date and location for this show remain unknown, though it's probably from 1968 as the notes indicate.
Finally, we have the closing selection from the Electric Flag's "A Long Time Comin'," a bon-bon that also closes Disc 1. It's Bloomfield's simple, elegant piece, "Easy Rider," a single blues chorus featuring overdubbed guitars, rain-and-thunder sound effects and a tapping foot keeping the beat. Beautiful.
CD 2: "Jams"
This is the money disc. Covering a scant seven-month period, these selections from Michael Bloomfield's one-again-off-again collaboration with keyboardist, arranger, producer and impresario Alan Kooper stand as the guitarist's only real brush with commercial success. Anyone who knows the name Mike Bloomfield knows "Super Session." It was the album we all had that inspired many of us to pick up a guitar and try to make music. It was also the album that I dare say put the Les Paul Sunburst, a model discontinued by Gibson because of poor sales, on the front burner as far as hot-licks guitar mavens were concerned. But that's another story.
The first three tunes on this disc come from Mike and Al's initial get together. Bloomfield's Electric Flag was imploding under the stresses of hard drugs and butting egos, and Kooper had parted ways with his own brass rock band, Blood, Sweat & Tears. The date was May 28, 1968, a Tuesday, and Al, who had just taken a gig as a producer for Columbia Records, got Bloomfield into a studio in Los Angeles for jazz-style jam session "just to see what would happen." What happened was some of the best playing by Michael ever to be recorded, certainly in a studio setting, and an album that charted at number 13 on Billboard's Hot 100.
I don't need to tell visitors to this site about "Albert's Shuffle," "Stop" and "His Holy Modal Majesty." They are part of the soundtrack of our lives, to paraphrase the guitarist. But I will say something about "Majesty." Some have derided it as over-long and indulgent, a piece created through judicious editing and post-production manipulation. There may be some truth to those assertions, but its 6/4 groove and unfolding solos, particularly by Michael, unquestionably stand the test of time. As a tribute to John Coltrane, who had died ten months earlier, the piece works. As with Coltrane's classic quartet, the musicians on "Majesty" find each other and establish a rapport that's larger than the sum of its parts. That, for me, is what music all about.
Next up are the live Super Session gigs at the Fillmores East and West. "One, two, one two ... uh, listen here ..." it's Mike's familiar speech from the "Live Adventures" album that introduces "59th Street Bridge Song." But this is a bi-coastal rendering of the Paul Simon tune, as Kooper has decided to improve on the original by editing together the two versions one from "Live Adventures" and the other from "The Lost Concert Tapes" to create an όber "Feelin' Groovy." If you're familiar with the different versions, it's fun to pick out the various segments as they switch back and forth. The whole doesn't really work, but Kooper did it, as he says elsewhere in the notes, "because he can."
"Don't Throw Your Love on Me So Strong" is from the December 1968 Fillmore East show and is edited (the piano solo has been removed), but it showcases some stellar Bloomfield guitar work framing Michael's not-half-bad vocal. What follows is an unreleased instrumental from the Fillmore East, a piece done as a tribute to Carlos Santana and saxophonist Mike Sharpe (composer of "Spooky"). The piece sounds a bit like Sharpe's tune, but it has a very nice solo from Michael where he employs the technique he described as a "roll," meaning he alternates rapidly back and forth between two notes in an ascending a scale. There's also a nice call-and-response section between Mike and Al that moves into a delicate "Modal Majesty"-like guitar cadenza to end the tune.
"The Weight" follows, the familiar rendition from the "Live Adventures" show. Then Bloomfield makes his Fillmore East speech, explaining "the nature of this Super Session." Next it's Michael's rendition of Elmore James' "One Way Out" with lots of tasty lead from the Guitar King. That's followed by the East's version of "Her Holy Modal Highness" and then another instrumental from the Fillmore West that was originally released on the remastered "Super Session" CD, a piece called "Fat Grey Cloud." Named for Bloomfield's manager, Albert Grossman, the piece is a slow blues that's a virtual catalog of Bloomfield's signature licks, complete with his precision stretches and fat Les Paul tone. Kooper does a nice turn on the organ and then Michael returns using what sounds like a fuzz box (which is hard to believe).
CD 2 ends with two Bloomfield features, up-tempo showstoppers from the Fillmore East set. Michael cuts loose with a classic rendition of Ray Charles' "Mary Ann," perhaps one of his best concert performances (that's saying a lot) and one that still smokes just as it did that night in New York some 45 years ago. Then it's "That's All Right Mama," a reprise of the tune that is a favorite of many fans of the "Live Adventures" show. This version is shorter and not as intense, but it still shakes the windows and rattles the doors.
CD 3: "Last Licks"
Glad I m Jewish (Live)
The third disc in the set abandons the chronological organization of the previous two discs and alternates between live sets at McCabe's Guitar Shop in Santa Monica and the Fillmore West, and various studio dates from the last decade of Mike Bloomfield's life.
Opening the disc are several selections from McCabe's, an epic show from New Year's Day 1977 that featured Bloomfield doing an solo acoustic set and another with a Bloomfield & Friends quartet. "I'm Glad I'm Jewish" is a Bloomfield original, a charmingly funny blues played in traditional style on acoustic guitar. The crowd loves it. Mike follows that with an anecdote about the thirteen-year-old girl who cleans McCabe's men's room, and then we get a fine "Don't You Lie to Me" with long-time Bloomfield partner Mark Naftalin on keyboards, jazz bassist Buell Neidlinger and drummer Buddy Helm. The McCabe's material has been available for a long time in various unauthorized releases, and most Bloomfield fans will be familiar with these performances. It would be nice one day to have a proper and definitive release of all those tunes, but it's great to have some of them included in the box. The story behind the McCabe's date would also be worth telling classic Bloomfield hilarity!
In April 1969, Michael journeyed to Chicago to play a benefit concert and record an album with Muddy Waters. The resulting record, called "Fathers & Sons," was originally Michael's idea and featured his old band mates Sam Lay and Paul Butterfield as well as Muddy, Otis Spann and Donald "Duck" Dunn. One of the few selections that Bloomfield soloed on is up next. "Can't Lose What You Ain't Never Had" is from the concert date that comprised half of the album, and Mike takes the breaks between Muddy's vocals. The son paying tribute to the father.
The performances from the Fillmore West were originally issued on "Live at the Bill Graham's Fillmore West" and Nick Gravenites' "My Labors" and were recorded in January and February of 1969. They're well known among Bloomfield fans for some of Mike's best live soloing and the selections offered here are no exception. "Gypsy Good Time" and "It's About Time" are Nick's compositions and he sings as Michael plays. "Carmelita Skiffle," named for the street Michael was living on at the time, is a superb shuffle with first rate Bloomfield. A caveat if you know the original, you'll notice that this "Carmelita" has been edited down quite a bit.
In 1969, Albert Grossman asked Mike Bloomfield to help Janis Joplin put together her own band after the singer decided to leave Big Brother. The result was an album entitled "I Got Dem Ol' Kozmic Blues Again Mama!" and Michael appeared on several of the cuts. "One Good Man," written by Janis, sports some fine Bloomfield slide and lead.
"Darktown Strutters Ball," an acoustic number again from McCabe's, demonstrates Michael's command of the ragtime idiom and it's complex rhythms and picking patterns. "Jockey Blues/Old Folks Boogie" is by the quartet minus Buddy Helms, a tribute by Mike to the great John Lee Hooker. "A-Flat Boogaloo," also known as "Uncle Bob's Barrelhouse Blues," is a Bloomfield original played by the quartet that features biographical lyrics.
The one selection from Michael's disastrous solo record for Columbia, "It's Not Killing Me," is an original titled "Don't Think About It Baby." Mike's solo is excellent and Kooper's remastering of the tune turns it into a real winner. I only wish Bloomfield had let Al produce the original release! If you know the original, I think you'll be surprised by the box's version.
On March 31, 1974, Bloomfield & Friends appeared at the newly opened Bottom Line in New York and were joined on stage by none other than Al Kooper. Al did a full set on piano with the band and the show was broadcast live over New York University's campus radio station. "Glamour Girl" comes from that broadcast and it captures Michael in top form, playing one of his favorite tunes by T-Bone Walker. This set has long been traded by collectors, but it's nice to have a selection from it included here so that more fans can hear how Michael sounded late in his career.
The penultimate selection on CD 3 is one that many Dylan fans will want. On November 18, 1980, Michael Bloomfield appeared on stage with his old friend, Bob Dylan, during Dylan's stay at the Warfield Theater in San Francisco. Bob gave the guitarist a flattering and warm introduction and we hear that followed by the second of the two tunes Bloomfield played on that night. "The Groom's Still Waiting At the Altar" isn't the best Michael, but it's not great Dylan either. What makes it a transcendent moment, though, is the reuniting of these two giants of American pop music some fifteen years after they made musical history at the Newport Folk Festival and some three months before Bloomfield's untimely death from a drug overdose.
Contrary to popular belief, the Warfield guest shot wasn't Mike Bloomfield's last public appearance. He did numerous shows after sitting in with Dylan, the last of which was about a week before he died. But the profundity of the Dylan appearance, given the circumstances, merits its inclusion in the box set. Kudos to the producers for getting it in and for cleaning up the sound (thanks again, Al).
Concluding the disc is the beautiful Joseph Spence hymn, "Hymn Tune" (also known as "Greatest Gifts from Heaven" and "Great Dreams of Heaven"), from the McCabe's gig. This is one of my favorite Bloomfield pieces from his later period and while it's great to have here, fans might want to search out the original, unedited version. You won't be sorry. Michael renders it on acoustic guitar and it is indeed heavenly. A perfect choice to end an extraordinary musical excursion through the career of one of America's true musical masters.
DVD: Sweet Blues
Dedicated fans of Michael Bloomfield probably know that San Francisco film maker Bob Sarles has long been working on a film about the life and times of the great guitarist. Over the years, Bob had been using leftover film stock from his commercial projects to film interviews with musicians, friends and Bloomfield family members. The producers of the Bloomfield box set approached Sarles early on and asked if he would be interested in producing a 60-minute version of his film to accompany the music in the set. Bob agreed and began searching for rare photos, audio tracks and film clips to flesh out his interviews and tell Micheal's story.
The resulting video, "Sweet blues: A Film About Michael Bloomfield," is an hour-long examination of the guitarist's artistry and the way that it affected those around him and ultimately shaped the course of American popular music. Sarles tells the story using Bloomfield audio clips from the familiar Dan McClosky interview as well as a recently discovered interview with journalist Walter Rimler. Previously unseen photos from rock and jazz photographer Jim Marshall are used throughout the video, and there are rare film clips by Ira Schneider of Bloomfield performing with the Electric Flag at the Bitter End in 1967. The images are tied together by engaging interviews with Bill Graham, Carlos Santana, Nick Gravenites, Elvin Bishop, Barry Melton, Mark Naftalin and many others, as well as candid conversations with Michael's mother, Dorothy, and his brother, Allen.
The pacing of the video is brisk, and while some events in Bloomfield's life are skipped over or omitted, the production leaves the viewer with a real sense of the excitement Michael created and the contribution he made to the music. It could have been no easy task to compress a life and career as complex as Bloomfield's into a 60-minute mini-bio, but Sarles has done an admirable job. "Sweet Blues" is an excellent complement to the music contained in the Bloomfield box set.
Lastly, I want to mention the sixteen-page essay that comes in the box set's booklet. Michael Simmons, a life-long Bloomfield fan, musician and writer for MOJO, Rolling Stone and many other music publications, has avoided the pedantic by giving the reader a highly personal take on Michael Bloomfield. By telling Bloomfield's story as he, Simmons, experienced it growing up, he evokes the experience of countless other Baby Boomers who discovered Michael in the same way. He then goes on to trace the outline of Bloomfield's career in no-nonsense prose, using his insider's knowledge of the music world, its traps and enticements, to get under the guitarist's skin. Simmons' hip argot and often humorous asides give his narrative a real Bloomfield flavor. A great and informative read.
If you've stayed with me this far, you deserve to hear my verdict on the box set (and if you haven't gotten this far, feel free to disregard anything that follows). As you might have guessed, with a few qualifications, I think it's a winner. As a Bloomfield devotee, there are other selections that I would have included, and some I would have omitted. But overall, I have to say that I believe that Kooper, Dickinson, Sarles, Simmons, et al, have done a superb job and have created a fitting tribute to Michael Bloomfield. A long time comin', but ... worth the wait.
AL KOOPER RESPONDS
This just in: Here are some corrections and comments from box set producer Al Kooper, offered in response to statements made in the review above.
As far as I can recall, Dylan's "Highway 61 Revisited" was TOTALLY in the can when we played Newport. We reconvened after Newport to rehearse for Dylan's Forest Hills and Hollywood Bowl concerts, but that was with Levon Helm, Robbie Robertson, Harvey Brooks and myself. Bloomfield had gone back to Chicago.
Also I did NOT remix any Flag stuff. I remastered the entire album but as you know that excludes remixing. The digital tools used in remastering are quite mighty, however.
Anything I edited out on the box was done to draw more attention to Michael. I didn't need/want the long organ solos in our "Modal" songs as they weren't comparatively up to Bloomers solos and I wanted the attention paid to Michael. Same with the Strazza edit on "Killing Floor" these were editorial decisions and I stand behind them. It's NOT an Electric Flag box.
The other editing I did was simply to keep the ball rolling. The whole point of the box was to educate folks about Michael. Though I was a participant in many of the performances presented, I didn't exempt myself from the razor blade, so I don't feel that I used the situation to better myself. As you pointed out, the organ WAS softer on "Like a Rolling Stone," primarily so that others could finally be heard. Al Kooper
Thanks, Al, for your observations, and for your efforts to make "From His Head to His Hands to His Heart" a reality and success. DD