Monday, August 22, 2022

NEVER TOO MUCH COLTRANE OR DOLPHY

 THE COMPLETE 1961 VILLAGE VANGUARD  RECORDINGS--
John Coltrane

John Coltrane--tenor sax / Eric Dolphy--alto sax, bass clarinet /Ahmed Abdul-Malik--oud / McCoy Tyner--piano Jimmy Garrison--bass Reggie Workman--bass / Elvin Jones--drums. 


From the four CD set, the first disc alone is mightily impressive for sheer stamina , and many sections of sublime improvisation. Jones rattles the traps in brisk rhythms, while Coltrane sets fires throughout the side. There are times when 'Coltrane gives in to his worse impulses--but these are brief enough, as Dolphy's alto playing, and his work with the bass clarinet, is enough to make me almost believe that there is a heaven. His bristling inventiveness, his inspired and assertive leaps between intervals, pitches, tones, and harmonic constructions approach enter the realm of pure avant garde sonics, but there is as well a sense of his spontaneous compositions remaining anchored in the bop tradition. These assets make him a perfect counterpart to Coltrane, whose rapidity of ideas, one chorus after the other extending a melody's potential to sustain a flood of brilliantly articulated notes , gives the whole of this four CD set a sustained, spell binding allure.   What had seemed alien to mainstream, bop-preferring audiences as radical and un-jazz like at the time is now a given in the repertoire of younger improvisers. There is not a musician today who can match  John Coltrane for the furious ingenuity that came from his soul by way of his instrument. Modal and operating on a rhythmic principle that  makes me think of W.C.Williams' alluring yet elusive notion of the 'variable foot" of rhythm--cadences and stresses are constantly changing into nearly perfect accents based on the vocalizations of a word arranged in spontaneous combination that convey meaning and purpose in sound as well as strict definitions--Elvin Jones and Reggie Workman construct an ever-evolving foundation , a brooding firmament on which Coltrane, Tyner  and Dolphy overlay a delicious and difficult weave of odd moods and desperate beauty. This is the kind of music that makes me sometimes think that I was born twenty years too late.

Friday, August 19, 2022

THE CLAPTON WE DESERVED

 


 The more cynical among us might dismiss this effort by bassist Jack Bruce and drummer Ginger Baker as a blatant money-grab to secure filthy lucre from nostalgic fans of Cream, replacing founding member Eric Clapton with stalwart blues—rock specialist Gary Moore. Two parts Cream is better than no Cream at all? But hold on a second, Moore's guitar work matches and very often exceeds the admittedly early brilliance of Clapton from those studio and live discs; Moore is technically far more advanced as a musician than Clapton, but what saves the Irish fret lord from being merely another wind-up virtuoso is his retention of the raw aggression, emotion, power of the blues.

 In this video, you'll note that he pretty well recreates Clapton's tone from the period and reveals great evidence of having spent hours, hundreds of hours playing EC with guitar in hand learning his phrasing, his timing, his dynamic sense. This is likely to be the best Clapton tribute that will ever come to be.Moore presents the particulars of EC's style that make me think that this was his (Clapton's) the best era as a guitarist. The timing, the tone, the frantic unpredictability of his blues intonations as the self-taught guitarist battled with the jazz-trained Bruce and Baker in those extended improvisations that were Cream's stock-in-trade.

 Moore brings all that to this performance, and effortlessly incorporates this fiery and swift riffing as well to remind you who's controlling the wah-wah pedal. Bruce and Baker, of course, are in fine shape as aging rock musicians, each improving and goading each other to different rhythmic emphasis, all of which Moore elaborates upon with inspiring blues improvisational escapades. It's refreshing that Moore seems to refuse to treat Cream's canonical songbook with any over reverence. He makes the material his own, and though Clapton's shadow looms over all of his flights, the Irish guitarist takes full possession of the solo spaces allotted and fills with a superbly honed manner, a gregarious aggression you might say.

Thursday, August 18, 2022

WOODSTOCKING AND BAD FAITH

 I had enough trouble maintaining an even keel when the film Woodstock was released in 1970. Even as a 17-year-old poet wannabe who loved the idea that Youth Culture, The Counter Culture, the new poetry found in the New Music would be of great transforming value for the world to yet to come, something about the famous account of the 1969 rock festival in upstate New York—something about the documentary concerning the famed rock festival had an off-putting hubris. All those hippies gathered for no good purpose, catching a ride on the swells of a collective ego, seemed a massive wallow in self-congratulations for being groovy beyond redemption. I remember mostly maintain my cool about the hype around the mythos of the event and the overpraise for the film, only to lose it finally in the matter when in 1981 NBC opted to broadcast the film on the concert’s tenth anniversary. Typical of a ratings grab, the network overkilled the entire enterprise. Rather than showing the film as it was (already noteworthy for its sense of self-congratulation), the powers that be at the network instead whittled it down into something safe and defused, entitled Woodstock Relived. In their production, NBC managed to change Woodstock from an historical footnote where pleasant memories can be derived and gave it the substance of a daydream. Woodstock Relived became, literally, naught but the magic land of Oz. and the audience, a gaggle of Dorothies stranded in a metaphysical Kansas of the soul, became suddenly transported to a land where dreams come true, and all endings are happy. NBC's purpose, I suppose, was to make the surfeit of long-hair, strange costumes, loud music, hints of nudity and free-love in the original motion picture somehow acceptable to the mainstream TV public by contriving a method that would "explain" the phenomena to an audience who might still be bewildered by the fête ten years hence. 


The primary proof of this is their choice of hiring Beau Bridges to provide a running commentary. Seated on a set equipped with a TV monitor, Bridges exuded the authoritarian calm of Walter Cronkite, seeming to adjudicate over a political convention. Where the first version of Wood51ock trusted the editing and the sequence of scenes to form their narrative—perhaps they had a better sense of who their potential audience was—the NBC editors would often flash the beginning of a musical act as Bridges would fit the film into a strained metaphorical context, as evidenced by two principal scenes in which the wishful thinking interpretation of the event belies its banality. In the first. Joe Cocker's head appears on the screen as the first strains of "A Little Help from My Friends" are played while off to the side, looking mellowly certain of his line. Bridges waxes poetic ~t: 'II on the spirit of cooperation that distinguished the event, citing the music as proof positive of his thesis with the words "When Joe Cocker began to sing. He told the world what Woodstock was all about." My response and others as well, was a loud "oh come on now." not because Bridge's analogy sounded stupid but because even a cursory examination of historical fact brings the whole notion of\ what the counter-culture actually was into question .ln fact, "what Woodstock was all about" was a matter of too many people showing up for an event whose producers expected less dense crowds, an alarming strain on existing food, toilet, sleeping and medical capabilities. And the remarkably benign response of surrounding townspeople. The National Guard and the Army to alleviate the hazards of overcrowding. 


And Cocker himself, being less than the spokesman for anyone, was a scheduled performer with only one US hit who had to play under the most unusual of circumstances. Wood - stock, in other words, was an accident of circumstances, and the fact that the crowd was more or less peaceful was little else but a fortuitous fluke. The NBC folks, though, wanted a structure in which to place the fair, a coherent "theme" with which to make the film an item one could stand, so they exercised their kind of historical revisionism, a revisionism intended to give the illusion that Woodstock can be understood in the most banal set of generalizations. More insidious than forcing the image of Cocker into a cheap, glittering cliché was the way they represented Country Joe McDonald. If memory serves me correctly. McDonald and his group The Fish were the mo t straightforwardly political of all the Bay Area rock and roll bands, going beyond the then trendy politics of the anti was movement and involving themselves with many new-left causes, including various benefit concerts for the Black Panthers, SDS, and other militant groups whose rhetoric frequently called for a "revolution" of a usually unspecified sort. 

The sensibilities at NBC, though, were either afraid of the depth of McDonald's obvious activism or were just plain ignorant of it, and chose instead to reduce him, like Cocker, to little more than evidence for a foregone conclusion. Completely sniping out McDonald's "Fish Cheer" ("Give me an F," and so on, until everyone is deliriously yelling FUCK). McDonald is first shown half-way through his son~ "Feel Like I'm Fixin' To Die' on the set's TV monitor while Bridges, his eyes puppy-wide his voice dripping a honey toned sincerity, generalized about the turmoil of the period, mentioning the dissent over the Vietnam War as a demonstration of "thousands and thousands of young people who deeply loved America who had something to say about the quality of life in this country, not just for them, but for generations to come." Then almost as an afterthought. The rest of McDonald's tune is played uninterrupted. Other examples abound endlessly throughout the run of Woodstock Relived of the way the producers of the show sought to make the original film presentable: the excising of all nudity, the elimination of all strong language that formerly peppered the soundtrack, only a cursory depiction of the drug use and most galling, Bridges' insistence that Woodstock was nothing more than "kids letting off steam." During a sequence of shots that show kids mud-sliding after a heavy rain. 

Bridges literally said something to the effect that they were engaging in "not good clean fun , but what's the difference?" The festival sounds positively wholesome, all-American, like going on a weekend retreat or sending one's son off to Boy Scout Camp. By implication, the 60s are made to sound wholesome and good clean fun, just a period of rowdy behavior no more deadly than a fraternity panty-raid. The implication, though, goes deeper, hinting that the Woodstock festival itself can be held up in the light of history as being the quintessence of what the 60s were "about." All the Prepare for variegated strands that marked the cultural and political atmosphere of the decade had merged to a head at the festival, and that each had found its fullest expression. This revisionist arrogance galls me to not end - the assumption being that Woodstock can be called representative of the 60s - but the fault in this case must fall to the TV producers and not the original filmmakers. The original Woodstock was, to its credit, a documentary of a specific event that did not attempt to generalize a world view. Even with the paucity of good music, the cretinous photography of the acts and the inane good vibe banter of the concert goers, the original Woodstock is nonetheless an accurate, if obviously biased representation of the festival, treating the event as something in and of itself, within context, without any pretense of imposing an overall "meaning." Though, the film has dated badly. 

One can still see it and retain a perspective that keeps one's sense of propriety in order: something similar to people recognizing the follies of unrepentant youth. Woodstock Relived, however, denies the original film's generic integrity and transform into an effective additive to the cultural epidemic of nostalgia, a condition that has us believing in false Edens. Like an evangelical preacher citing Bible passages over the airwaves to legitimate their political stance in terms that transcend the machinations of human being, the how's producer composed for themselves a bill of good as to what the 60 meant and used the festival the Irrefutable Truth. Woodstock thus become romanticized to the point that excludes perspective for analysis. The 60s become trivialized with no attempt to take the longer more comprehensive view of the decade, and ultimately, all of our experiences of the period become cheapened, having fallen victim to a corporate reductionism whose ideology demands a narrative style that deliver us to a horde of dollar-eyed advertiser. The larger pity of this is that anything anyone was struggling for - a better world, peace, a society free of exploitation—become part of the mainstream, the birthday ribboned package of lies we tell ourselves to have the nerve to trudge ahead into a future with something like hope. Under the shoulder-to-the-wheel bravado we drape our waking lives in, our dreams tell us what we won't speak of over breakfast, at work, or even sitting alone minding our own business, that the future is not a destination legitimated with greater and finer purpose, but merely a station of merely passing through the days with what we've learned from being alive so far. The idea is that life in -the -moment exists in what we bring to it, our experience and the eventual gathering of personal knowledge sometimes called wisdom. The real terror of this life is we wonder if we've learned anything at all up to this point. 


Friday, August 12, 2022

BEING WRONG ABOUT RY COODER

 

Image result for ry cooder
The more I thought about it, the less I wanted to attend the Nov. 16 Ry Cooder concert in the UC gym. Cooder, I knew, made a name for himself for the slicing slide guitar work he did on the Rolling Stones Let It Bleed album, a record I enjoyed. But word had it that Cooder was a dyed-in-the-wool folkie, someone who does songs they've learned from hillbillies, blues pioneers, sailors, and other sources. 

In other words, Cooder wasn't any Hollywood pretty boy stroking his Ovation guitar while singing self-penned tomes to his sensitivity, like Jackson Browne (though Browne's stylistics  their reward),  Rather, Cooder was strictly bucolic, with rough edges In both voice and guitar work, not a virtuoso but engagingly honest in presentation to an audience that I suspected picked up on folk music as part of a collective rejection of high art in general.  But while my admittedly dour presuppositions could have turned into a self-fulfilling prophecy ("The old and still adolescent school of making up your mind before being in possession of facts), I realized I needed to switch off the contempt. It was a bit like culture shock in your culture. Cooder, without the band he's been using for most of this tour, ambled sleepily on stage!! and sat in his chair and goaded the sound crew to "goose” the volume up in the monitors, finally imploring them to " crank it. Don't be afraid." The height of his performance was his guitar work. Basing his styles in rural blues inflections and country picking techniques, Cooder's approach is an enticing hodgepodge of effects that don't fall into any category, but rather rest between the boundaries. 

His picking is quick and firm, with the vigorous pulling of the strings, and his chord mix ragtime jazz progressions, classical chording, and blues phrasings with egalitarian ease that's positively organic. His slide work, his strongest forte, avoids the dying dog moans that neophyte players, mostly British, manage, and _ maintains a solid flow of incisively slashing riffs. The fact that he seemed affable and good-natured worked in his favor as well. He seemed to enjoy the songs he did, avoiding the sort of inverse snobbery I thought pervaded this genre and its audience. Cooder debunked that prejudicial nonsense. 

Opening the show was Mike Seeger, Pete's brother, who played banjo, fiddle, autoharp, harmonica, Jew’s harp, as well as guitar, set the night's mood with an amicable way of going about his job. The highlight of his set was his Jew’s harp playing, which with the utilization of the University's super fine sound system, approximated the unearthly buzz of interstellar insects, a ploy Pink Floyd might consider next time they take their million-dollar quad system on tour. It's astounding that sometimes the strangest emanations come not from smoky, sparking, colicky electronic amplifier banks, but from the recesses of man's musical past. His concert was refreshing to remember that not everything we’ve done as species is ugly and created with it in mind to stomp on the next guy.


JEFFERSON STARSHIP'S LONG CRASH LANDING

 

Image result for GOLD JEFFERSON STARSHIP
GOLD--Jefferson Starship

The Jefferson Starship are ·one of the more remarkable Jobs of a late Sixties acid rock band re-tool their image so that they might fit in the Seventies marketplace. The original Airplane, if you· remember, were a group of LSD crazies who espoused the glory of chemically expanded consciousness years before Carlos Castaneda got Into the act. In their original conception, the Starship became paranoid revolutionaries (on paper anyway) who'd lost any grasp they had on reality, and whose political broadsides resembled a Psychedelic piece of hate literature. (The peace and love gleam had faded from the Jefferson Airplane’s collective gaze and the first Starship album, Blows Against the Empire, was a quizzical and quixotic way of trying to rouse their fans to act of resistance. I’m still hesitant to say that writing a semi-rock opera centering around hijacking a starship and heading out some a cosmic place where longhairs, dopers and select people of color wouldn’t be hassled by the man was the best way to change one’s lived-in circumstances. Ah, the Sixties…)  In this age of lower expectations, though, it's understandable that the Starship's rebel stance has wizened, and that their music has become more commercially approachable. They've placed themselves safely on the record charts with a series of hit singles and albums, the sounds of which border on the easy-listening lilt of Fleetwood Mac, Peter Frampton, or The Eagles. Lucidly for old Airplane fans, the new Starship has produced several well-crafted hits, most of which are on Gold. The standout track is Marty Balin's "Caroline," a superbly produced and arranged song that screams for radio programmers to include it on their playlist, "Miracles, " a stunningly layered ballad with an elusive, captivating melody that is , besides,  perhaps the greatest  song ever written with oral love references, and "With Your Love." There will be those die-hard rock and roll counterculture adherents who’ll feel that the Starship has betrayed the cause, whatever that might be. One must remember, however, that the Airplane/ Starship has a formidable body of work complete with stratospheric highs and the lowest lows, and their momentary upswing on the record charts is more than anyone could expect from a band who, by rights, should have burned itself out years · ago. 






Thursday, August 11, 2022

MIKE BLOOMFIELD PLAYS SAN DIEGO

 

It’s been mentioned by offhand wits that one’s younger days get hipper the more one speaks of them, an understandable response to a friend or stranger’s grand recollections about the times they’ve been near the famous, the legendary, the brilliant, the ignoble, the stylishly crude. But there’s no intention to brag that I had seen the original Paul Butterfield Blues Band somewhere between 1967–1969 at the Chessmate, a no-age-limit, alcohol-free coffeehouse in Detroit where local and touring folk, blues and jazz acts played.

This is more in wondering whatever happened to the memory of the band’s first guitarist, the late Mike Bloomfield. Bloomfield was a white boy, born in Chicago, from the suburbs, who was in love with black Chicago blues and traveled to Southside Chicago to witness the music he loved in the black clubs where they played: Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf, and Hubert Sumlin. I knew next to nil about the blues then nor did I know who Bloomfield’s influences and mentors were. What I did know was that he played guitar like nothing I had encountered until then.Biting, fluid, aching, and bittersweet, Bloomfield was masterful that night, a scrawny, jerky Jewish kid playing a black man’s blues with an intensity that was absent of cliché or recycled rockabilly riffs; what he was doing was something else. I was converted to the blues and the cause of lauding Bloomfield each chance I had with fellow music geeks. He recorded two widely praised albums with the Butterfield Band, Introducing the Paul Butterfield Blues Band and East West. Just as things began to break for the band, Bloomfield did what became a predictable habit throughout his career, he abruptly left the band. He started one of the first rock-oriented horn bands — the Electric Flag — leading a racially diverse group of musicians through a variety of American music that include blues, jazz, rockabilly, and soul. A Long Time Coming, their first album, was well reviewed and again, just as things began to percolate, Bloomfield bailed on the project and wound up recording with Blood, Sweat and Tears founder Al Kooper for the Super Session album. Mike Bloomfield, though, couldn’t finish the album and left the project after recording half an album’s worth of splendid guitar work, with Kooper enlisting the aid of guitarist Steve Stills to finish the disc.And so it was, a genius guitarist who was easily a decade ahead of his time with regard to the art of rock guitar, leaving one promising band and collaboration after another, impatient, a walking case of the jitters. He couldn’t stay in one place too long.

My family moved to San Diego in the summer of 1969, during the Woodstock Festival, and, as it turned out over the years, Mike Bloomfield was a frequent visitor to the area during the 1970s, playing with an assortment of friends at colleges and clubs to promote whatever album he’d just released, or merely picking up a date because he still had name recognition even in music that was becoming increasingly corporate and predictable in a broad range of commercial releases. Bloomfield’s gigs promised the loose-fitting grit of the Bay Area style as well as a funky blend of folk, blues, jazz, and Eastern influences that ran contrary to the tight shoes record companies and radio stations were increasingly insisting musical artists wear in order to gain exposure. Bloomfield had done his best to sabotage his commercial potential by his erratic behavior and inconsistent performances, but there was something intriguing about Bloomfield’s live performances; you didn’t know how well Bloomfield would play, inspired and ruling the frets like the master he could be or so distracted and disassembled that his musicianship would make those unaware of what he could do wonder loudly and angrily what the big deal was with his reputedly great musician.

Apprehension over pending Bloomfield gigs was understandable, considering that his swings in mood and delivery made the interested fan wonder out loud which Mike Bloomfield would show up, the wonderfully expressive blues player who was one of the ground-zero white players to introduce blues, jazz, and raga and improvisational charms into rock ’n’ roll’s evolving instrumental style, or the mercurial bright boy who couldn’t stay in one place, stay in his seat, finish what he’d started? I’ve seen both in San Diego venues, hither and yon, the results different as old steak and the freshest, sweetest fruit.

It sorts of works out as a story of two university engagements, the night and day, the sweet and stinky, the great and the gross.

In the early 1970s, Bloomfield and Friends played a concert at the University of San Diego gym ,the first time I’d have a chance to see him live since Detroit; he was magnificent and everything critics and admirers claimed him to be. Energetic, even smiling, a change from his usually scrunched up scowl as he punished the guitar strings. The music consisted of up-tempo shuffles and rhythm and blues chestnuts, slow, heartbreaking blues and some instances of the fleeting jazz/raga improvisations Bloomfield introduced to the larger world, which was still living within the confines of Top 40 radio. There was always something simultaneously graceful and unwieldy about Bloomfield’s manner of playing; blessed with a fluidity that was uncommon in the day for rock-oriented guitarists, Bloomfield’s habit was to use everything he had when he sallied forth on a long solo. His slow blues would begin with the bittersweet and golden-hued tone of B.B. King — a sublime replication of the human voice. He would seem to lose control of his stream and have his phrases go over the 1–1V-V progression and wander into dissonance and near atonality as though channeling Coltrane’s high-register skirmishes.

After that, he would bring it back to the V chord, his playing deeper, with a long, searing blues bend sustained for several measures as the pitch increased higher in tone and intensity until he released the note and altered the mood again with softer, whispering phrases that brought the blues to a finely buffered resolution. It wasn’t all slow blues and bathos, though, and I remember how amazingly Bloomfield made the up-tempo blues stomp and rock under the snapping lash of his hot-tempered lead work, or how he displayed a knack for rapid, single-note runs during jazzier instrumentals, highlighted by the full, ringing octaves pioneered by Wes Montgomery. It was a good night for Bloomfield, a good night for the blues. Bloomfield, though, needed to keep moving after the show. He was quickly gone, seen rushing out of the gym’s side door holding his guitar case, brusquely brushing past fans trying to shake his hand or give him high fives or something stronger. He was in a hurry to get somewhere.

The memory gets blurry again recollecting another Bloomfield concert, a reunion concert not so long after the show in the USD Gym. I can’t recall the date, but I do remember what happened.The Electric Flag, the band that Bloomfield formed after his departure from the Butterfield group, leaving promptly after their widely praised first album. Moby Grape also played, a fantastically talented group of musicians that arose toward the end of the San Francisco rock era and produced two worthy albums. Moby Grape and Wow, before their rapid decline due to drug problems and member struggles with mental illness, were scheduled for a double-whammy reunion concert on a date in the mid-’70s at the UCSD Gym. There was a good amount of commotion among my fellow music obsessives, mad chatter over beers and bongs about how this would shake out. Two bands of short life spans but worthy discographies on tour together, attempting again to be relevant in a terrain that was rapidly forgetting the magic and value of the hippie vibe.

Moby Grape’s performance was, to be kind, something resembling an arrangement of mannequins dressed as old bohemians that held guitars while music was piped in through a scratchy PA system.A desultory display all around, the band sometimes came to life with a snappy guitar riff or unexpected burst of energy from the rhythm section, but there was the element of songs sagging in the middle, the musicians fall out of time with each other, of lyrics being forgotten, missed cues. The harmonies were ragged, a moth eaten weave of voices. That night Moby Grape’s fine legacy was a burden, a standard they couldn’t come to terms with.

Some of the crowd liked it though, but the applause and war-howls was as lackluster as the music. It was an open seating affair, which meant audience members found their patch of hard wood floor and made themselves comfortable amid the other attendees who had the same idea, to get as near the stage as possible and commune with the drum beats, guitar solos, and the passing of ignitable drugs. The lights remained low during the break between bands; I could see the cherry tips of joints floating in air, passed finger tips to fingertips, and the room was filled with the noxious aromas of marijuana reeking sweet. But the rule was this: stay for Bloomfield, the First Guitar Hero, the erratic genius of electric blues and roots music.

It was a pensive wait for the Electric Flag’s arrival on stage, as the squatting student audience, cooling their heels between bio chem exams and writing padded term papers notable for turgid prose and jargonalia, started a murmur of sorts, people yelling out “Bloomfield” or the staid and sturdy “rock ’n’ roll,” voices hoarse with the burn of pot. A Frisbee was being tossed about. There was the tangible feeling that one was a sardine in a can.

The Electric Flag soon took the stage, first the horn section, all proper looking gents dressed for the gig, alert and seemingly sober, and then the others, the bassist and keyboardist. Drummer Buddy Miles came on and took his place behind a large drum set, ready to let the world know again how it was he’d been picked by Jimi Hendrix, John McLaughlin, Carlos Santana, and Bloomfield to handle the sticks on various projects. Miles was a good, not great drummer, able to adjust his rhythm and blues approach to a variety of rhythmic requirements, minimal but firm, steady, on the mark. He was not a Tony Williams, not a Mitch Mitchell, but he got the job done. His second biggest talent seemed to be skill at landing high-profile gigs with famous rock guitarists. Then vocalist Nick Gravenites took his position, an underrated vocalist and the composer of the blues standard “Born in Chicago,” made famous by the Butterfield Blues Band.

Finally, Bloomfield himself emerged, thin, lanky, jeans drooping and back curved, looking not a little like a guitar bearing pugilist approaching his opponent, sensing where the next punch was coming from. There was a good amount of applause and this time the gymnasium echoed with the fanfare, as much from the relief of the waiting as it was anticipation for Bloomfield’s artistry. The performance itself was wanting, though, not bad nor slovenly, but strangely professional. In the metaphysics of judging such things, or at least reconsidering the events years removed, that secret something was missing: the elan, the verve, the energy that comes from playing the notes in such a way that the nervous system lights up like Christmas lights and infuses the sounds with a feeling that resonates in a listener in areas of the soul that have nothing to do with the quality of technique. The band, musically on point, could have been employees gathered to collect their paychecks after a Friday shift. Bloomfield wasn’t having a good time of it and seemed hesitant to play anything.

Where the band would play a solid, Albert King-style blues requiring suitably mournful and sting guitar fills between phrases, Bloomfield was often silent or late to the cue, and his solos were tentative half the time, as if he were trying to remember why he was in the center of the stage in the spotlight. He did play a great solo on the band’s signature song “Texas,” a moment when talent and sensibility jibed and made something moving, a slow blues solo as very few people could play it. This was half way through the show and it made me optimistic that the rest of the night would ascend to the proper heights of excellence. One could here, though, electrical crackling and short bursts of electronic blurting from Bloomfield’s amp.

He was agitated; his face was a road map of exasperated furrows. Two songs later the band went into a slow soul ballad featuring Buddy Miles on drums. Bloomfield strummed away in accompaniment while Miles softly drummed and crooned the lyrics. Miles, who had a voice that was, say, adequate to sing in harmony but far too thin and screechy to take on the Sam Cooke, Otis Redding, or Wilson Pickett gospel-influenced style, had walked up from behind his drum kit and took the microphone from the stand, confessing to the crowd on why he needed his baby. It became an endurance contest but Bloomfield couldn’t take it. His amp continued producing extracurricular belches and his facial features vanished behind a mask of irritation. He abruptly yanked the cord from his amp and walked off the stage, not to return. The rest of the Electric Flag managed as best they could but by that point one could seem a growing stream of students, hippies, faculty and assorted bohemians headed for the exits, heading to the parked cars or buses that awaited them, wondering what happened to Bloomfield and if they could get a refund.

This was the deal one made with their admiration of Bloomfield’s guitar work — that one would either be in the presence of a master, an innovator, a man who changed the way succeeding guitarists approached the way they played guitar, or be witness to a burned-out case. Michael Bloomfield was found dead of an apparent drug overdose February 15, 1981, in the front seat of his Mercedes. He was a heroin user and suffered, it’s been said, from chronic insomnia, two things that might provide clues to the musician’s famed inconsistency. For all his breakthroughs in revolutionizing rock-oriented guitar playing with a heady fusion of blues, jazz, swing, raga and traditional folk-blues techniques, Mike Bloomfield was a man who didn’t stay with a project for very long, as his brief but galvanizing stints with Paul Butterfield and the Electric Flag and Al Kooper attest. Other projects, such his collaboration with Dr. John and John Hammond Jr. in the trio Triumvirate, didn’t go beyond one album and one tour. Another band called KGB with Ric Grech (from Family and Blind Faith), Barry Goldberg (Butterfield) , Carmine Appice (Vanilla Fudge, Jeff Beck, Rod Stewart) and Ray Kennedy (James Gang) was an attempt to put a “super group” together, but , again, didn’t last beyond one album. Bloomfield did, though, keep busy with his music, appearing on a good number of albums by other musicians, and releasing a steady stream of studio albums of his own where his best skills were displayed.

It’d be a little grandiose to maintain that Bloomfield is the Forgotten Guitar Hero, but it irksome to those of us in the early circles of fans to hear younger blues fans discuss the genius of Stevie Ray Vaughn or Robin Trower and the like without a mention of MBs monumental importance to establishing blues as the Rosetta stone through which all contemporary rock guitar playing comes from. Under discussed, obscured, perhaps, but not forgotten, not wholly.

One day few years ago I was at La Jolla’s Pannikin Café on Girard Ave., next to DG Wills bookstore, and there were the familiar plaintive, slicing, fluid riffs of Mike Bloomfield coming out from behind the counter. It was turned up loud, like it should be; I could hear the notes emoting from across the street as I waited for the traffic light to change. John, a fine young man with an angelic crest of long brown hair, was the manager on duty and the Bloomfield disc, 1969‘s Live at Bill Graham’s Fillmore West, was his choice of play. I ordered my coffee, black, no sugar, no room for cream, and asked him if he liked Bloomfield.

“Oh yeah” he replied. He took my money, gave me change. I threw the coins into the tip can.

“You know how old this recording is?” I asked, hoping to brag with on
e of those back-in-the-day boasts that maintained that the past was better than what’s being sold in the current time. John just smiled and ended the conversation with the best response regarding the matter.

“Really doesn’t matter” he said, “it sounds great right now.”

Sunday, August 7, 2022

THE DEPRESSED BRILLIANCE OF THE LOST POETS