The Paul Butterfield Blues Band

WHILE ENGLAND was paving the way for mass acceptance of white interpretations of classic blues material with bands like the Yardbirds and Bluesbreakers and talented individuals of the caliber of Clapton, Beck and Page, America produced two notable bands working in the same genre – the Al Kooper / Danny Kalb-led Blues Project and the Paul Butterfield Blues Band.

The latter was not as prone as most to the inevitable "can a white man play the blues?" question (the issue being emotional honesty rather than technical ability), having honed their craft in Chicago’s South Side blues clubs and at the knees of that city’s legendary blues musicians.

The Butterfield Band’s credentials include an impressive array of firsts: the first electrically amplified band on the Elektra label; the first "this record should be played at full volume in order to fully appreciate the sound of…." label on their debut LP; the first band Bob Dylan played an electric guitar with on stage (at the Newport Folk Festival in 1965, I believe); and the band that produced the first white American guitar idol in Michael Bloomfield (he’s prominently featured on Dylan’s trendsetting electric albums).

The definitive Butterfield recordings are the band’s first two Elektra albums and five tracks – (in all likelihood outtakes from the first LP) – from the What’s Shakin’ sampler (also featuring the Lovin’ Spoonful, Al Kooper, Tom Rush, and Eric Clapton & the Powerhouse, a post-Bluesbreakers, pre-Cream band including Stevie Winwood). They show a group full of youthful vitality and possessed of a solid emotional rapport with the music. On What’s Shakin’ (EKS 74002) and The Paul Butterfield Blues Band (EKS 7249), the energy output is maintained at a consistently high level, Bloomfield’s high-voltage leads and Sam Lay’s snare shots and cymbal crashes infusing even the slower numbers with a gripping intensity.

Most of the songs are super-charged interpretations of classic Chicago material ('Spoonful', 'Good Morning Little School Girl', James Cotton’s 'One More Mile', Little Walter’s 'Blues With A Feeling' among them), including Lay’s vocal treatment of Muddy’s "Mojo" and, for my money, the definitive recorded version of Elmore James’ 'Shake Your Moneymaker' – Butterfield’s vocals on this track and the opening 'Born In Chicago' are positively exhilarating.

Mark Naftalin departs from his normally quiet contrapuntal vamping for a jazzy organ solo on the instrumental 'Thank You Mr. Poobah' that points to the major deficiency – the one dimensional nature of the sound – of the Butterfield Band’s initial recordings. They lay down some truly high-powered and exciting blues but the sameness of their approach – Butterfield and Bloomfield trading solos while Elvin Bishop (second guitar), Naftalin, Jerome Arnold (bass) and Lay churn out the driving rhythm – takes a little of the edge off the musical brilliance halfway through the second side. That problem was rectified on their next album.

East-West (EKS 7315) is the premier achievement of the band’s recorded career. There are still intensely energetic re-workings of classic material – Robert Johnson’s 'Walkin’ Blues' and Allen Toussaint’s 'Get Out Of My Life, Woman' among them – but the focus has shifted to a tightly arranged songs by group members and a sparse, biting sound. Butterfield is outstanding vocally and instrumentally throughout, Naftalin’s piano is the instrumental backbone of the Toussaint tune and Bishop contributes a beautiful desolation row vocal on the moody 'Never Say No', but the album’s peak moments belong to Bloomfield.

His lead work on 'I Got A Mind To Give Up Living' is a model of aching intensity and he takes the lion’s share of the soloing on East-West’s two extended tours-de-force.

Nat Adderly’s 'Work Song' is a walking blues with the lead instruments trading solos over Arnold’s solid bottom and the jazzy foundation of Billy Davenport (who replaced Sam Lay).

The title track is the real crusher, a thirteen-minute instrumental extravaganza with a decidedly Indian feel based on scintillating dynamic changes, laid-back moods of peace and serenity spiralling to passages of raga-like intensity. The track runs you through the mill emotionally – recorded in 1966, it is still one of the finest pieces of guitar-based instrumental music ever recorded.

The Butterfield Blues Band fell apart after East-West. Butter himself continued with a big-band blues format before mellowing out at Woodstock with Better Days. Bloomfield formed the excellent but short-lived Electric Flag, played on various sessions (Super and otherwise), re-formed the Flag briefly this year and is currently putting together the KGB band.

Elvin Bishop had a moderately successful San Francisco-based blues band before becoming a Capricorn cowboy about a year ago while Mark Naftalin is a much-in-demand Bay Area sessionman. Arnold, Lay and Davenport were swallowed up by the obscurity that perpetually cloak black bluesmen, particularly those who play in the rhythm section. These recordings are their legacy.

© Don Snowden, 1976

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