Review: Michael Bloomfield, “From His Head to His Heart to His Hands”
“I think we’ve exploited you enough. I just want you to know I’m signing you!” With those words, spoken by John Hammond Sr. and heard on the first disc of Legacy Recordings’ new 3-CD/1-DVD box set From His Head to His Heart to His Hands, Michael Bloomfield became a Columbia Records recording artist. Though he died in 1981 at the age of 37, the blues guitarist extraordinaire left behind a substantial body of work in a variety of musical settings. Perhaps he never fulfilled the entirety of his tremendous promise, having battled personal demons for much of his too-short life. But the “sweet blues” left behind by Bloomfield speaks volumes in this invitingly personal “Audio/Visual Scrapbook” curated by his longtime friend and collaborator Al Kooper.
The three discs of From His Head to His Heart to His Hands are helpfully organized in rough chronological fashion as “Roots,” “Jams” and “Last Licks.” It starts at the very beginning – always a very good place to start, natch – with three previously unreleased from the birth of Bloomfield’s career, recorded at an audition session for the legendary Hammond. Although the Chicago-born Bloomfield was just in his early twenties, he had already soaked up the essence of that city’s storied blues. Hammond clearly cottoned to the young man’s mastery of the guitar. Accompanied only by bassist Bill Lee, Bloomfield showed off the styles which he had perfected, including Merle Travis-inspired “ragtime” guitar. He also introduced Hammond to his guttural, growled vocals; as a singer, Bloomfield was a tremendous guitarist! But if his voice was rough around the edges, it was – like his virtuosic guitar playing – all heart.
Kooper’s tour of Bloomfield’s early years continues with raucous live blues, recorded (where else?) in Chicago with fellow white bluesman Charlie Musselwhite, and then with a powerful one-two-three punch of sessions with Bob Dylan, The Paul Butterfield Blues Band and The Electric Flag. The newly-remixed backing track of Dylan’s revolutionary “Like a Rolling Stone” shows how deft Bloomfield’s country-western lead guitar could be in a band setting – subtle yet forceful and distinctive, so well-integrated with Kooper’s washes of organ, Dylan’s guitar and harmonica, Bobby Gregg’s booming, thunderous drums, Joe Mack’s anchoring bass, and Paul Griffin’s ironically rollicking barroom piano.
A previously unreleased alternate version of “Tombstone Blues” with Columbia recording artists The Chambers Brothers on backing vocals is another thrill. (This is not same take previously issued on The Bootleg Series Vol. 7: No Direction Home.) Bloomfield’s searing rockabilly-meets-the-blues lead and The Chambers’ earthy backups add to the gritty authenticity of Dylan’s dark, oblique, impressionistic story with its references to Ma Rainey, Beethoven and Cecil B. DeMille. This “Tombstone” is yet another example of how Dylan synthesized so many styles of music into something utterly new and shocking – and how integral Bloomfield was to the singular sound of Highway 61 Revisited.
Dylan plays a major role, too, bookending the set. A never-before-released live track from San Francisco circa 1980 is a bittersweet treat. It’s prefaced by a touching, affectionate introduction that leaves one hankering for the days when Bob would actually address the audience in concert. Dylan storms and seethes through “The Groom’s Still Waiting at the Altar” with Bloomfield smoothly ingratiating himself into the band with a smoking turn alongside guitarist Fred Tackett (Jimmy Webb, Little Feat) and the gospel backing vocals of Clydie King and company. As with Kooper, Bloomfield was so sympathetic to Dylan that his instrument could translate and express his musical partner’s vision as his own.
Bloomfield had a similar connection with Paul Butterfield, sharing guitar duties with Elvin Bishop on the driving blues-with-a-beat of “Born in Chicago” and the torrid my baby-up-and-left-me “Blues with a Feeling” (both from 1965’s The Paul Butterfield Blues Band). The sequence of the Butterfield tracks builds to the 13+-minute jam “East/West.” One can hear the roots of Santana in the Latin vibe of its opening strains. It builds in fury and fire, with Bloomfield’s guitar leading a small, electric (and electrifying) group that packs the power of a blues orchestra. He evinces the variety and invention of a jazz improviser as the song shifts moods as he builds solos on a single chord and creatively performs them in different scales.
The guitarist’s early arc culminates, at the conclusion of Disc One, with a brace of performances with The Electric Flag. There’s still a certain incongruity to Mike Bloomfield leading a horn band; Al Kooper points out the similarity to his own history in his entertaining introductory note. (Both men left their “outré blues bands” to form horn bands and then exited those horn bands after just one album!) The Flag largely resisted the temptations of pop, however. Proof can be found on the two scorching live tracks here, both of which are previously unreleased. Perhaps “blues with horns” was simply a concept too far ahead of its time; the Kooper-founded Blood, Sweat and Tears and Chicago both proved the viability of jazz-rock with horns (and had massive success when marrying that sensibility to pop melodies). Five selections from The Electric Flag do, however, demonstrate the band’s versatility. Yet the Electric Flag was too short-lived (and as the liner notes reveal, too plagued by drugs and interpersonal problems) to fully succeed. But even for just a while, Bloomfield, Harvey Brooks, Nick Gravenites, Barry Goldberg, Buddy Miles and co. created one hell of a joyful noise.
After the jump: much more on Mike’s blues!
The second disc is dedicated to the adventures of Mike Bloomfield and Al Kooper, to steal from an album title. Its fourteen varied jams are drawn from the famous Super Session set of 1968 along with The Live Adventures of Mike Bloomfield and Al Kooper (from performances at the Fillmore West the same year) and Fillmore East: The Lost Concert Tapes (also recorded in ’68 but unissued until 2003). Bloomfield’s personal issues kept him from completing Super Session, yet in five tracks, he produced half of an album for the ages.
For longtime fans, though, Kooper has included a previously unreleased outtake in the form of the punningly-titled, slinky and soulful “Santana Clause” (from the Fillmore East) and a newly-created hybrid take of Paul Simon’s “The 59th Street Bridge Song (Feelin’ Groovy)” drawn from both the Fillmore East and West. Joining Kooper and Bloomfield were two completely different bands – and a certain Mr. Simon even joined in on vocal harmonies for the San Francisco performance – and Kooper has created an intriguing hybrid here. In five-and-a-half minutes, organist/vocalist Kooper and guitarist Bloomfield slow down “Feelin’ Groovy” with a touch of heavy blues, reinventing a now-classic pop song.
From Super Session onward, Kooper and Bloomfield were in perfect sync. They incorporated jazz (“His Holy Modal Majesty”) and R&B (Jerry Ragovoy and Mort Shuman’s “Stop”) influences into the blues brew, and From His Heart… features originals and covers of Albert King, Ray Charles, Robbie Robertson, and more. The instrumental rendition of “The Weight” is roaring, yet stays true to the ragged, gospel-inflected spirit of the original. Bloomfield’s guitar, as usual, is imbued with searing deep soul. The common conception is that Bloomfield’s voice (or lack thereof) kept him from ascending to commercial heights, but this set makes a case for its modest charms (“One Way Out,” “Mary Ann,” “That’s All Right”) as well.
The final audio disc here, “Last Licks,” offers a whopping seven tracks from 1977’s live album I’m With You Always, including the humorous “I’m Glad I’m Jewish.” Of these, John Lee Hooker’s “Old Folks Boogie” is keenly-felt by Bloomfield, while “A Flat Boogaloo” is loose and spirited. The old “Darktown Strutters’ Ball” displays a lower-key, more subdued side of the artist. This disc also makes room for some guest-appearance odds and ends. Bloomfield was close to Muddy Waters, and appears on “Can’t Lost What You Ain’t Never Had” from Muddy’s Fathers and Sons album. It’s an apt title considering the musical relationship between the two gentlemen. (Paul Butterfield also appears on this track on harmonica.) Bloomfield’s spot on Janis Joplin’s “One Good Man” is a tantalizing might-have-been.
A few collaborations appear from songwriter-vocalist Gravenites and lead guitarist Bloomfield. On “It’s About Time,” they’re locked into a soulful R&B groove with Bloomfield’s former Butterfield Blues Band teammate Mark Naftalin on piano, his Live Adventures bassist John Kahn, his soon-to-be-frequent drummer Bob Jones, and Electric Flag baritone saxophonist Snooky Flowers) at the Fillmore West. The many aspects of Bloomfield’s relationship with Gravenites are also explored on the selections from their joint effort My Labors (1969) and Bloomfield’s solo album, It’s Not Killing Me (1969), produced by Gravenites. “Don’t Think About It Baby” from the latter recalls The Electric Flag with its prominent horn section. There’s even a Bloomfield/Kooper reunion from 1978 at the Bottom Line on the newly-released “Glamour Girl.” Conspicuous by their absence are tracks from 1973’s Triumvirate with Dr. John and John Hammond, Jr., The Electric Flag’s 1974 Atlantic Records reunion The Band Kept Playing, and 1976’s KGB, a supergroup record with Carmine Appice, Rich Grech, Ray Kennedy and Barry Goldberg. Hence, there’s no music here from the years 1970-1977.
The DVD here premieres director Bob Sarles’ hour-long documentary film Sweet Blues: A Film About Mike Bloomfield. Interview footage is extensive, drawn from chats with Bloomfield’s friends, family and collaborators, some of whom have since passed away. Interviewees include Kooper, Gravenites, Musselwhite, Goldberg, B.B. King, Elvin Bishop, Carlos Santana, John Hammond Jr., Jack Casady, Jorma Kaukonen, Dave Freiberg, Gary Duncan of Quicksilver Messenger Service (“I thought he was better than Hendrix or Clapton,” he comments of Bloomfield), Country Joe McDonald, Bloomfield’s mother Dottie (1918-2013) and fleetingly, Bob Dylan. Most subjects praise Bloomfield’s artistry, skill, generosity and spirit, while not shying away from mentioning the troubles (including chronic insomnia and drug abuse) that eventually led to his premature demise. Still others reflect on his tall tale-telling; Musselwhite observes, “I never knew when he was telling the truth or lying.” That said, the emphasis is squarely where it should be, on the guitarist’s art and not on sensationalism. Bloomfield himself is heard on archival interview tapes, including one on which he asserts his “brash Jewboy confidence” and describes his early days surrounded by others questioning why this white kid was playing the blues.
There are many choice nuggets in Sarles’ film, with one particularly insightful segment dedicated to his time in San Francisco – he liked the sex and drugs in the City by the Bay, but not so much the rock-and-roll. It makes the case that he “upped the ante for musicianship” for The Dead, The Airplane, Quicksilver Messenger Service and the rest. It’s heartrending to hear Bloomfield himself admit, “Rock star: that mantle doesn’t rest easy on my shoulders,” and indeed, the film reveals a self-destructive streak in this consummate talent and, by all accounts, kind man. All the more chilling are Bloomfield’s frank comments about his heroin use and the overdoses which he survived over the years. Of course, no film about Mike Bloomfield would be complete without his music, and there are wonderful performance clips from 1967’s Monterey Pop Festival and the Bottom Line, in 1980. Numerous recordings are also excerpted on the film’s soundtrack.
From His Head to His Heart to His Hands is accompanied by a thick booklet with liner notes from Kooper and Michael Simmons. The hip, conversational essay by Simmons reflects on how the Chicago-born Bloomfield melded his own Jewish roots with the African-American experience to transform the blues into something he could feel and communicate to others with honesty and clarity. As his mother simply states in the documentary, “Soul is what Michael had.” Producer Kooper, who also remastered the box set, even offers a special audio treat in addition to his liner notes, so don’t turn your CD players off after Track 16 on Disc 3…
Michael Bloomfield never became a household name like Clapton or Hendrix or Jimmy Page. But he was an authentic original, and never before has his career been presented in such a focused, loving and powerful manner. From His Head to Heart to His Hands is a vivid portrait of an uncompromising artist. He may have played the blues, but Bloomfield was a man of very many colors.