was like a shooting star, a rolling stone who catapulted. Sorta like Hendrix, he lasted a little longer than the Purple Haze, until 1981, dying of a drug overdose at age 36. He suffered from insomnia as well as addiction. But for a time, if you were alive then (especially during the 1960s), and you listened to music, if you missed Michael ... sorry, but you were asleep.
Okay, his music with Paul Butterfield
, Bob Dylan, his short-lived and sizzling Electric Flag
band, the one-off Super Session album with keyboardist/singer Al Kooper
and bassist Harvey Brooks, and his Live Adventures double-LP with Kooper (featuring remarkable cover art of them both, head to head, wild hair and all, courtesy of the iconic Norman Rockwell)all of this may not have grabbed a mass-market audience in those virginal years of early rock and roll mixed and stirred with electric blues, but, as the saying goes, to have known him was to love him.
"Best guitarist I ever heard," so said Dylan. Hearing Bloomfield for the first time back in the day, Carlos Santana says he had one of those "this is what I want to do for the rest of my life" experiences. Hendrix had that affect as well on a lot of people. But it's the lesser-knowns, the ones who travel under the radar (isn't it?), who can end up becoming the more interesting, if not more talented, players to follow.
From His Head To His Heart To His Hands (Legacy 88765476342; 62:20/67:35/63:18/57:41), produced and curated by Kooper, covers the early years with three country blues demos and one cut from a blues anthology (all from 1964 for Columbia's famed producer John Hammond) and travels on through to Bloomfield's last show, with Dylan of all people, in 1980, playing Dylan's "The Groom's Still Waiting At The Altar," complete with heartfelt backing vocals and a full band; 56 tracks in all. Some of the meat from this four-disc set (the fourth being a retrospective of his life and career DVD) can be tasted during those pregnant years he spent plugging in with the menacing, brilliant harmonica playing Butterfield (along with drummer Sam Lay, fellow guitarist Elvin Bishop, others), sprouting from a Chicago scene foaming at the mouth with the likes of Muddy Waters, Howlin' Wolf, Otis Rush, essentially the core of the early electric blues explosion. Bloomfield, raised in posh circumstances in a nice Jewish suburban Chicago home, was the restless one, aching for something he knew but couldn't define. The blues, and proximity to Chicago's South Side during the late 1950s and early '60s, combined to be his get-out-of-jail-free card.
Then, there were the Dylan sessions, and exposure to a rough kind of pop that carried with it a blues-oriented style of playing. Bloomfield famously appears on Dylan's Highway 61 Revisited LP (along with Kooper), tracks here including a vocal-less version of "Like A Rolling Stone" along with an alternate take of Dylan's "Tombstone Blues," a song that got to the heart of their being in the same place at the same time. Here, we get to hear Bloomfield's guitar crying and moaning, amplifying Dylan's lines of wandering and angst. It was a short-lived collaboration, but one that reverberated and has (obviously) stayed with Dylan ever since, this being that potent transitional period when the folk bard went electric, blaspheming the true believers. Bloomfield, it could be said, was along for the ride. This set, however, suggests a slightly different interpretation, the guitarist on a voyage of his own, even if he wasn't sure exactly where he was headed.
The DVD Sweet Blues: A Film About Michael Bloomfield, directed by Bob Sarles, reveals a strange fact, namely, that, if sources are to be trusted, Bloomfield was never interviewed on camera (otherwise, Sarles certainly would have included some footage). Our connection to him via this film is through his voice only, always accompanied by the visual image of a reel-to-reel tape player, the machine essentially acting as a surrogate. Bloomfield's voice is clear, often very expressive, as he recounts episodes in his life, starting with his early years on through to his challenging, stimulating years emerging as a new voice during those ripe young years of pop and electric blues. Meaningful on- camera interviews corral former bandmates/colleagues Elvin Bishop, Nick Gravenites and Charlie Musselwhite, along with B.B. King, John Hammond, Jr., Carlos Santana, Quicksilver Messenger Service members David Freiberg and Gary Duncan, Jack Casady and Jorma Kaukonen of Jefferson Airplane fame, and impresario Bill Graham (pretty much all of these interviews hearkening back to Bloomfield's initial presence on the then-burgeoning San Francisco scene of the late '60s and the Monterey Pop Festival with the horn-driven Electric Flag, Chicagoan Bloomfield now living in San Francisco). What's lacking in the DVD, unfortunately limited to just under an hour, are any extended (as opposed to partial) performance clips of Bloomfield. What we get are a lot of well-knowns singing his praises but little in the way of the "why" that could've come through longer performance video footage, perhaps bringing us closer to Bloomfield's kinetic guitar-playing energy, an energy that invariably included an incredibly evocative body language, revealing facial expressions; in other words, a more direct link between guitar and man.
Which brings us to the music on the other, three CDs. Along with the Paul Butterfield Blues Band, you can already tell Bloomfield is at his best in a jam setting, their improvisational flair on "East/West" melding east Indian sensibilities with the rough edges of psychedelic electric blues. An average-to-below-average singer (e.g., a groaning of Ray Charles' "Mary Ann"), Bloomfield's way with a vocal still managed to have an appealing, roughhewn quality to it; not exactly off-key, one could, could, hear his voice as an extension of his guitar. Maybe that's what he was hinting at when Bloomfield told Rolling Stone in a 1968 interview, "I play sweet blues. I can't explain it. I want to be singing. I want to be sweet." There are two versions (one live, one studio) of a John Coltrane salute (the slinky rocker-goes-swingingly-waltzing "His Holy Modal Majesty," featuring some crazy ondioline Kooper keyboards), along with selections from '70s-era Bloomfield projects like It's Not Killing Me and I'm With You Always that feature the guitarist returning to his acoustic as well as playing electric in solo and collaborative settings. Favorite solo in this set: Bloomfield's winding, undulating combing of his guitar with sick chords and slinky, rapid fire single lines on Gravenites' too-short, funky workout "It's About Time," from Live At Bill Graham's Fillmore West album (1969). More windows into a consistently irregular yet irrepressible career captured on record.
For some reason, and Kooper is no doubt to blame for this, the Electric Flag's riveting, funky take on Howlin' Wolf's "Killing Floor" (one of five Electric Band cuts) from the album A Long Time Comin,' finds this rock-blues anthem tinkered with in the closing minutes, Peter Strazza's expressive tenor sax solo deleted from the original and what sounds like a dubbed repeat of the final chorus instead added in. And that's not the only place where the producer's studio shenanigans surface. Kooper, especially now in his later years, appears to be something of a musical mystery, perhaps just a continuation of what he's been all along. His production of this boxwhere he avoids including certain projects that didn't reflect well on Bloomfield's career but where he does include rarities that never appeared on official releases as well as additional cuts that did surface later on discis to be applauded but also heard with a skeptical ear. As part of that production, mention should also be made of the 40-page booklet with novel photos and a lengthy, enthusiastic essay, "Who Is That Guitar Player?," by musician/journalist Michael Simmons.
What made Michael Bloomfield's contributions so important, and why this set even exists (apart from Kooper's admirable diligence to get it released), has more to do with the intriguing, original ways he and his guitar ended up being one and the same, and less to do with who he played with, when and where. Yeah, he played with Muddy and Otis Spann on the acclaimed Fathers And Sons sessions for Chess, with Janis Joplin on her debut album, and, as mentioned, he was at the scene of the crime with Dylan when Dylan removed himself from the rarefied, testifying world of acoustic folk music. Bloomfield even sat in for sessions with big band icon Woody Herman as well as another icon, folkie Tracy Nelson. With quotes all over the place in this package, let's give the final word to another icon, Miles Davis, who, in 1969, had this to say: "When Mike Bloomfield plays before a black audience, his shit's gonna come out black ... you could put Michael Bloomfield with James Brown and he'd be a motherfucker."
Personnel: Mike Bloomfield: guitars (CD1#1-5, CD2#1-3, 5-8, CD2#10-14, CD3#3, CD3#5,
CD3#11-13), vocals (CD1#1-5, CD2#6, CD2#10, CD2#13-14, CD3#1#1, CD3#3,
CD3#11-13), lead guitar (CD1#6-7, CD1#9-16, CD3#4, CD3#6-7, CD3#10, CD3#15),
acoustic guitar (CD3#1, CD3#9, CD3#16); Bill Lee: bass (CD1#1-3); Charlie
Musselwhite: harmonica (CD1#4-5); Mike Johnson: guitar (CD1#4-5); Sid Warner: bass
(CD1#4-5); Norman Mayell: drums (CD1#4-5), Brian Friedman: piano (CD1#4-5); Bob
Dylan: harmonica (CD1#6-7), guitar (CD1#6-7, CD3#15), vocal (CD1#7, CD3#15),
spoken intro (CD3#14); Al Kooper: organ (CD1#6-7, CD2#1-3, 5-8, 10-14), vocals
(CD2#5), ondioline (CD2#3), piano (CD3#13); Paul Griffin: piano (CD1#6-7); Joe Mack:
bass (CD1#6); Bobby Gregg: drums (CD1#6-7); Bruce Langhhorne: Mr. Tambourine
Man (CD1#6); Russ Savakus: bass (CD1#7); The Chambers Brothers: background
vocals (CD1#7); Paul Butterfield: harmonica (CD1#8-10), vocals (CD1#8-10); Elvin
Bishop: guitar (CD1#8-10); Jerome Arnold: bass (CD1#8-10); Mark Naftalin: organ
(CD1#8-10), keyboards (CD3#3, CD3#11-12), piano (CD3#7-8, CD3#10); Sam Lay:
drums (CD1#8-9, CD3#4); Billy Davenport: drums (CD1#10); Harvey Brooks: bass
(CD1#12-16, CD2#1-3); Nick Gravenites: vocals (CD1#12-16, CD3#5), percussion
(CD1#12-16), lead vocals (CD3#7-8); Sivuca: guitar (CD1#12-16), percussion (CD1#12-
16); Barry Goldberg: keyboards (CD1#12-16), electric piano (CD2#1-3), organ
(CD3#12); Herb Rich: keyboards (CD1#12-16), tenor saxophone (CD1#12-16); Mike
Fonfara: keyboards (CD1#12-16); Buddy Miles: drums (CD1#12-16); Peter Strazza:
tenor saxophone (CD1#12-16); Marcus Doubleday: trumpet (CD1#12-16, CD3#10);
Stemzie Hunter: baritone saxophone (CD1#12-16); Eddie Oh: drums (CD2#1-3);Paul
Harris: piano (CD1#5 Fillmore East, CD2#6-7, CD2#10, CD2#14); Jerry Jemott: bass
(CD1#5 Fillmore East, CD2#6-7, CD2#10, CD2#14); Johnny Cresci: drums (CD1#5
Fillmore East, CD2#6-7, CD2#10, CD2#14);John Kahn: bass (CD1#5 Fillmore West,
CD2#8, CD2#11-13, CD3#7-8, CD3#10); Skip Prokop: drum (CD1#5 Fillmore West,
CD2#8, CD2#11-13); Paul Simon: harmony vocals (CD1#5 Fillmore West); Buell
Neidliner: bass (CD3#3, CD3#11-12); Buddy Helm: drums (CD3#3, CD3#12); Muddy
Waters: vocals (CD3#4), guitar (CD3#4); Otis Spann: piano (CD3#4); Donald "Duck"
Dunn: bass (CD3#4);Janis Joplin: vocals (CD3#6); Richard Kermode: organ (CD3#6);
Brad Campbell: bass (CD3#6); Maury Baker: drums (CD3#6); Lonnie Castille: drums
(CD3#6); Terry Clements: tenor saxophone (CD3#6); Snooky Flowers: baritone
saxophone (CD3#6, CD3#7-8); Luis Gasca: trumpet (CD3#6); Ira Kamin: organ
(CD3#7-8, CD3#10); Bob Jones: drums (CD3#7-8, CD3#10); Dino Andino: conga
(CD3#7-8);Noel Jewkis: tenor saxophone (CD3#7-8);Gerald Oshita: baritone
saxophone (CD3#7-8, CD3#10); John Wilmeth: trumpet (CD3#7-8); Fred Olsen: guitar
(CD3#10); Mike melford: guitar (CD3#10), mandolin (CD3#10), vocals (CD3#10); Orville
Rhodes: pedal steel guitar (CD3#10); Rob Ruby: piano (CD3#10); Richard Santi:
accordion (CD3#10); Ace of Cups: background vocals (CD3#10); Ron Stallings: alto
saxophone (CD3#10); Maark Teel: tenor saxophone (CD3#10); Roger Troy: bass
(CD3#12); George Rains: drums (CD3#12); Fred Tackett: lead guitar (CD3#14); William
"Smitty" Smith: organ (CD3#14); Tim Drummond: bass (CD3#14); Jim Keltner: drums
(CD3#14); Clydie King: backing vocals (CD3#14); Carolyn Dennis: backing vocals
(CD3#14); Regina Harris: backing vocals (CD3#14).