The Paul Butterfield Blues Band (Elektra ‘65) Rating: A-
Though largely forgotten by the public at large today, this was a very influential and highly accomplished band back in the mid-'60s. For one thing, they were one of the first racially integrated bands, and they were a blues band who played with a force and amplification that greatly appealed to rock audiences, making them one of the first American blues bands to “cross over.” Anyone who’s ever said that “white guys can’t play the blues” obviously never heard Paul Butterfield, the autocratic leader of the band whose passionate but unremarkable vocal talents paled in comparison to his virtuoso harmonica skills. The other “star” in the band was lead guitarist Michael Bloomfield, who rivaled Eric Clapton and Jeff Beck as the guitarist of the mid-'60s. How good was Bloomfield? When Al Kooper showed up for the Bob Dylan session for “Like A Rolling Stone,” he fully intended to play guitar. When he heard Bloomfield warm up he was so intimidated that he promptly switched to keyboards (an instrument he had never played before), where he launched the wonderful organ riff that we’ve all heard a thousand times! Anyway, rhythm guitarist Elvin Bishop (who later had a solid solo career) was no slouch, either, and keyboardist Marc Naftalin was a classy accompanist whose keyboards added color and shade, while the excellent rhythm section of bassist Jerome Arnold and drummer Sam Lay (both veterans of Howlin’ Wolf’s band) could really swing. Among the songs on this self-titled debut are highly energized updates of old warhorses such as "Shake Your Moneymaker" (Elmore James), "I Got My Mojo Working" (Muddy Waters), "Mellow Down Easy" (Willie Dixon), "Mystery Train" (made famous by Elvis Presley), along with two songs by Little Walter (Butterfield's most obvious influence on the harmonica, though in my opinion Paul had his own distinct style as well), an instant classic by Nick Gravenites ("Born In Chicago"), who would later join Bloomfield in the Electric Flag, and three group-penned compositions, the best being Bloomfield's "Screamin'". Truthfully, 40 years later there's nothing revolutionary about the music on this album, which like most Chicago blues is overly repetitive and reliant on lines like "last night I lost the best friend I ever had, she gone up and left me, make me feel so bad" and "it's too late now baby, you know our good love's gone bad." However, the band's special chemistry and inspired playing keeps me coming back to this one, and songs such as "Born In Chicago" (great Butterfield showcase), "Blues With A Feeling" (a sad and lonely blues on which Bloomfield steps to the fore), "Mellow Down Easy" (above all else a showcase for the deft touch of drummer Sam Lay, who also sings lead on "I Got My Mojo Working"), "Screamin'" (featuring Bloomfield's standout guitar solo on the album), and "Look Over Yonders Wall" (more stinging Bloomfield leads) never fail to get a rise out of me. The rest of this extremely consistent album is enjoyable as well, despite a few overly obvious song selections and a dated element that makes this album lack the freshness of its superior successor. Still, if you like gritty, emotional, electrified Chicago blues then you can't do much better than this collection of muscular, hard rocking blues songs, which made notions about authenticity and race irrelevant. Note: That year the band gained notoriety when they backed Bob Dylan during his controversial electric performance at the Newport Folk Festival.
East-West (Elektra ‘66) Rating: A
When Sam Lay became ill he was replaced by Billy Davenport, an extremely versatile and refined skin smacker who played a pivotal role in the band's transformation from an excellent electrified Chicago blues band into something much more. Whereas the mere concept of the band's debut (i.e. white Americans playing "black music") was revolutionary, on East-West the music was equally so, as the band expanded their sound by incorporating Middle Eastern influences, mind expanding psychedelia, and a jazz-like spontaneity into some expansive improvisations (and this was before Cream made extensive jams commonplace). True, some of the songs, most of which are covers or traditional songs rearranged by the band, echo the style of their previous album, but Butterfield's hard-hitting harp stabs elevate Robert Johnson's "Walkin Blues" and "All These Blues" (the latter clocking in at a rather insubstantial 2:18), while "I Got A Mind To Give Up Living” is a slow burning blues that oozes so much soul (led by Bloomfield) that you can easily overlook its puzzling lyrics ("I got a mind to give up living, yes, and go shopping instead”). The more lyrically direct Allen Toussaint update "Get Out Of My Life, Woman," which features fine piano work by Naftalin, the psychedelic pop of Monkee Michael Nesmith's "Mary, Mary" (heavy on the fuzztone riffs and Butterfield's blaring harp punctuations), and an atmospheric plodder perfect for a smoky late night bar ("Never Say No," which is sung by Bishop) are interesting enough efforts but are hardly highlights. However, “Two Trains Running” features hot traded off licks between Bishop and Bloomfield, and besides, it's the two long songs here that make this album a “forgotten classic” among knowledgeable music fans and critics. Their jazzy (both in its sound and its improvisational essence) 8-minute cover of Nat Adderly's “Work Song” is an exceptional showcase for Butterfield and Bloomfield, but Bishop and Naftalin also solo, and when they all come in together at the end it’s controlled chaos at its very best. Finally, there’s the psychedelic title track, an exotic 13-minute, Middle-Eastern influenced instrumental that, inspired by Ravi Shankar and John Coltrane, still sounds fresh and exciting today, over 40 years later. Though Bishop and Butterfield solo and the whole band improvises around a rhythmic drone and Davenport's bossa nova beat, this extended epic is primarily Bloomfield’s baby, and despite some breaks in the action here and there, his playing (sometimes in tandem with Butterfield and/or Bishop) is utterly mesmerizing as the song builds to several sizzling climaxes that are still mind blowing. Believe me, nobody else was doing this back in 1966, and this pivotal song and its attendant album helped invent the ‘60s rock guitar hero, and it should still greatly appeal to blues aficionados and guitar lovers everywhere.
The Resurrection Of Pigboy Crabshaw (Elektra ‘68) Rating: B+
Bloomfield, who had also played a pivotal role on Bob Dylan’s classic Highway 61 Revisited album, left the band after East-West to form the Electric Flag. It wasn’t a huge surprise, really; he and Butterfield were never pals, and theirs was always an uneasy alliance based strictly on their shared love of the music they made together and the mutual respect they had for one another’s abilities. Unsurprisingly, they miss Bloomfield’s fiery fretwork, but Bishop (now the lead guitarist) is a fine guitar player in his own right, which he proves throughout this album, which places less emphasis on lead guitar, anyway. Seamlessly adding a prominent horn section into the mix (including a young David Sanborn on sax), these generally long-ish songs are more loosely constructed and are more soul/r&b-based (best example: “One More Heartache”) or flat-out rock n’ roll (best example: “Run Out Of Time”) than previous albums. Don’t get me wrong, the boys can still do a down and dirty blues (witness all 9-minutes of “Driftin' And Driftin'"), covering blues masters such as Albert King (the somewhat overly familiar “Born Under A Bad Sign”) and Otis Rush (“Double Trouble”). But these guys still do their own thing as well, and this album has its share of surprises, such as when the Rush song ever-so-subtly morphs into the music of Screaming Jay Hawkins’ “I Put A Spell On You,” or when “Drivin' Wheel” launches into the intro from Miles Davis’ “So What” before a gut busting harp solo from Butterfield. That said, The Resurrection of Pigboy Crabshaw (Pigboy Crabshaw is Bishop's nickname) is a definite comedown from their first two albums, lacking the consistency of the debut (plodders such as “Pity The Fool” and “Tollin' Bells” drag the album down a bit) and the jaw dropping highlights and overall intensity of East-West. Still, even without Michael Bloomfield the Paul Butterfield Blues Band was a formidable unit (special mention for the ever-so-tasty drum fills of another new drummer, Phillip Wilson), and The Resurrection of Pigboy Crabshaw was a highly commendable, easily recommendable next step that offered further proof of the band’s ongoing vitality.
The Original Lost Elektra Sessions (Rhino '95, recorded in '64) Rating: B
The majority of these tracks were recorded in 1964 for what was supposed to be Paul Butterfield's first solo LP, but the album was shelved as the band soon went on to record the more accomplished The Paul Butterfield Blues Band. Finally seeing the light of day in 1995, The Original Lost Elektra Sessions will be of interest primarily to hardcore fans of the band, as the rhythm section is very low-key and even Bloomfield is less of a presence, as Butterfield's admittedly excellent harp playing was clearly the focus while everything else was relegated to the background. This album contains 19 songs, only two of which exceed four minutes and most of which are in the 2+ minute range. Several of these songs were re-recorded later; "Mellow Down Easy" and "Our Love Is Drifting" are on The Paul Butterfield Blues Band, while "Just To Be With You," "Everything’s Gonna Be All Right," "Poor Boy" and "Spoonful" appear on later albums but not with the classic lineup. As such, most of these songs are exclusive to this collection. As for the songs themselves, they're a mix of well known "Chicago blues" standards along with some lesser knowns and even a few band written compositions, but the material is rather generic overall and it's the performances that really matter. Like I said before, on that front I wish that this was more of a band effort, as Michael Bloomfield certainly should never be pushed to the side in a support role, but by and large the performances are solid and passionate, with the overall sound being a bit more raw and low-fi than what the official debut would offer. Even at this early stage this band could definitely play the blues, whether on moodier numbers like "Just To Be With You," "Lovin' Cup," "Love Her With A Feeling," and "Goin' Down Slow," or on more energetic fare in the form of "Nut Popper, No. 1," "Mellow Down Easy," and "Piney Brown Blues." Still, at 19 songs this is definitely too much of a good thing given the album's limited diversity, though Butterfield himself is in fine form lest anybody ever wondered why this band bore his namesake.
East-West Live (Winner '96, recorded in '66) Rating: B+
If The Original Lost Elektra Sessions was for hardcore fans, East-West Live is for Butterfield Blues Band fanatics. Really, who else would be interested in 3 live versions of the same song, the shortest of which runs for 12:37? The second and third versions run for 15:55 and 28:06, respectively, and, murky sound quality aside, all capture the explosive excitement and sense of spontaneity that made “East-West” one of the epochal songs of the mid-'60s. Michael Bloomfield is the star, and he really was a genius on guitar, but the whole band shines on these extended improvisations, which are best experienced one song at a time rather than listening to all three versions back-to-back-to-back. Truthfully, though I love this song and really like these renditions, I view this as a once in a while, need to be in the mood for it sort of album, since the original version is still my favorite. Still, I’m really glad to own this album, whose mere existence is a testament to the increased appreciation for this groundbreaking band, who even received a surprising (but deserved) Rock and Roll Hall Of Fame induction in 2015. But the reason you guitar lovers out there should splurge for this admittedly self-indulgent set is because its best moments can still give goose bumps 40 years after the fact, as the band’s classic lineup tears through their classic song again and again and again. The exhausting end result is occasionally boring (version #3 in particular meanders) but is more often than not exhilarating.