While a proliferation of box sets continue to entice with career-spanning retrospectives sometimes entire discographies, like Legacy Recordings' recent Paul Simon: The Complete Albums Collection
(2013)few serve as aural biographies with the same degree of success as Mike Bloomfield's aptly titled From His Head to His Heart to His Hands
, a three-CD/one-DVD long box produced by the only person who could truly do justice to the late bluesman, Bob Dylan
compatriot, member of the seminal Paul Butterfield Blues Band and founder of the equally essential horn-heavy Electric Flag. Thirty-three years may have passed, but keyboardist/producer Al Kooper is still around to make From His Head to His Heart to His Hands
a thoroughly revealing three-plus hour journey, from Bloomfield's previous unreleased and staggeringly impressiveaudition for Columbia Records' John Hammond Sr., through a previously unreleased gem where Bloomfield reunited with Bob Dylan, guesting at the singer/songwriter's Warfield Theater show on November 15, 1980, exactly three months before the guitarist was found dead in his car on February 15, 1981 of a drug overdose that remains unexplained to this day.
"Let me do, just for my own self-satisfaction...just to show...I'll play...you know who Merle Travis is, Mr. Hammond?," asks a 21 year-old Bloomfield, after already impressing Hammond Sr. with the traditional "I'm a Country Boy," and Bessie Smith
's "Judge, Judge," already proving that this young, Chicago-born Jew was not just capable of playing the blues with absolute credibility, he played it with the kind of truth
rare amongst white blues playersthen and now. "I know him well," says Hammond. "Alright, I'll play a Merle Travis piece for ya, a nice ragtime guitar piece...let me tune up again." "'16 Tons,'" asks Hammond, "referring to Travis' 1946 song made into a huge hit in 1955 by Tennessee Ernie Ford. "Not that," replies Bloomfield, "something a little cheekier than that." And with that he heads into "Hammond's Rag," taken at a bright clip and suggesting that Bloomfield's main passion might be the blues, but he was far broader in scopeand already a remarkable virtuoso, as he demonstrates a mastery of Travis' picking style so complete that, when it comes to an end, Hammond simply says, "That was great; I think we've exploited you enough. I just want you to know I'm signing you."
Bloomfield's reaction? "Oh!
From there, across three CDs, Kooper paints a broad picture of Bloomfield; largely chronological, but still themed on each disc: Roots
, which covers the period 1964-67 and includes material from his tenures with Dylan, The Paul Butterfield Blues Band and his own Electric Flag; Jams
, which takes a look at the fruitful seven-month period when Bloomfield played with Kooper on albums including Super Session
(Columbia, 1968), The Live Adventures of Mike Bloomfield and Al Kooper
(Columbia, 1969) and the recently unearthed 1968 dates released as Fillmore East: The Lost Concert Tapes
(Columbia , 2003); and, finally, Last Licks
, a compendium of tracks spanning 1969- 1980, from Bloomfield's solo recordings to dates with Muddy Waters
and Janis Joplin, and his staggering guest appearance on "The Groom's Still Waiting at the Altar," from Dylan's 1980 tour in support of Saved
(Columbia, 1980), the second of the singer/songwriter's "Christian" trilogy.
He may have struggled with drugs during the final years of his life, which made him an unreliable hire, as he began missing gigs from the mid-'70s on and struggled to find an audience beyond those that knew him only as part of the vibrant San Francisco scene of the late '60sand a record label that would have the necessary confidence in him. But From His Head to His Heart to His Hands
's 36 trackswhich include three spoken word pieces from Bloomfield and Dylan's introduction to his 1980 guest appearance that makes clear the high regard in which he was held by musiciansmakes equally clear just how much of a loss his death, at the age of 37, truly was.
Bloomfield may not have had the influence and power of, say, a Jimi Hendrix
, but the authenticity with which he played, his thick, sweet tone and his ability to fit in a multiplicity of contexts makes a box like From His Head to His Heart to His Hands
not just important, but essential
in ensuring that his memory lives on into the new millennium. It also suggests that there are manyEric Clapton being a particularly notable examplewho have undeservedly achieved greater acclaim as bluesmen, unfairly trumping this young American white man who truly dedicated his life to the blues to the exclusion of all else, influencing many others either indirectly or, as in the case of Jefferson Airplane/Hot Tuna guitarist Jorma Kaukonen, quite directly. Unlike other boxes of this naturelike Stevie Ray Vaughan
(Legacy, 2000), which was filled with a preponderance of unreleased tracksFrom His Head to His Heart to His Hands
only has twelve. But that's likely because, in the 21st century, as the baby boomer generation moves into retirement and beyond, relatively few people remember Bloomfield beyond his name (if that).
It has become essential, then, to include some of the seminal material that defined him as not just an authentic blues guitarist, but as a musician capable of spanning styles including the countrified licks heard on a previously unreleased look at Dylan's "Like a Rolling Stone" sans
vocals, from the singer/songwriter's groundbreaking and controversial Highway 61 Revisited
(Columbia, 1965), to his lengthy solo excursion on his aptly named title track to the Paul Butterfield Blues Band classic, East-West
(Elektra, 1966) and his John Coltrane
-inspired explorations with keyboardist Al Kooper": "His Holy Modal Majesty," from Super Session
; and the similarly informed "Her Holy Modal Highness," from The Live Adventures of Mike Bloomfield and Al Kooper
There is an appearances with another, even younger lossblues-belter Janis Joplinon "One Good Man," from I've Got Dem Ol' Kozmic Blues Again Mama!
(Columbia, 1969), where Bloomfield's piercing guitar work includes some particularly visceral slide work. The guitarist also shows his deeper roots on Muddy Waters' "Can't Lose What You Ain't Never Had," an especially meaningful track as a young Bloomfield actually babysat for the blues legend in his early Chicago days.
It's also important to consider the time in which Bloomfield and others like Butterfield, singer Nick Gravenites and bassist Donald "Duck" Dunn were engaging with black musicians; as early as 1959/1960, a barely Bar Mitzvah'd Bloomfield could be found in black Chicago clubs, playing with names like Howlin' Wolf, Sunnyland Slim, Sonnyboy Williamson, Otis Rush and, most importantly perhaps, Muddy Waters, who one night handed his red Telecaster guitar to "Bloomers" and reminded the black audience that "this young man was a friend of his," as Michael Simmons recounts in his informative liners notes. Integration was still a long way away in the United States of the early '60s, and yet people like Bloomfield, Butterfield and Memphis-born harmonicist Charlie Musselwhite were being accepted by the black community because of their clear love of the blues.
What From His Head to His Heart to His Hands
reveals, however, is Bloomfield's breadth, from the rootsy, acoustic guitar-driven and comedic "I'm Glad I'm Jewish," a live track that would easily fit on an early Ry Cooder
recording, to the curiously bossa-driven groove of his electric blues "Don't You Lie to Me," from I'm With You Always
(Benchmark, 2008), a posthumous live release from 1977. In addition to the Electric Flag tracks, Bloomfield's relationship with singer Nick Gravenites is documented on the bubbly, horn-driven "It's About Time," another unearthed track first released on Live at Bill Graham's Fillmore West: 1969
, originally released in 1969 by Columbia but reissued by Australia's Raven Records, with additional tracks, in 2009.
In fact, Bloomfield's excursion into 20th century blues from across the first half of the century makes him a truly comparable archivist to Cooder, with tracks like the acoustic "Darktown Strutters Ball," also from I'm With You Always
, more than sufficient evidence. If only he'd not succumbed to drugs. Still, his legacy has been refreshed and renewed with this box set., whose DVD features Bob Sarles' revealing hour-long documentary, Sweet Blues: A Film About Mike Bloomfield
There's not a lot of live footagethe result of budgetary constraints, Kooper reveals in his brief introductory notes. Still, interviews with everyone from Fillmore impresario Bill Graham, Nick Gravenites and Charlie Musselwhite to Jorma Kaukonen, Country Joe McDonald and Al Koopereven a brief quote from Dylan and some significant intervierfw footage with Carlos Santana
along with plenty of stills from concerts and studio sessions provide more than enough source material for an informative hour that acts as a perfect adjunct to the CDs.
Most moving is an interview segment with Bloomfield's mother, Dorothy Shinderman (who passed away only last year, on June 5, 2013), where she recounts going to a B.B. King
show in 1970 and sending a note backstage saying she must
speak with King, and that she was the mother of Mike Bloomfield, who the legendary blues guitarist knew. She asked King to speak with her son who, according to Bloomfield expert David Dann, had lost interest in playing by this time and was spending his days in "stoned leisure," watching TV in his bedroom, reluctant to perform due to his growing disdain for the music industry and the trappings of celebrity.
While King did, indeed, speak with Bloomfield and the guitarist would resume recording and performing, it was always on his own terms; If You a Love These Blues, Play 'Em as You Please
(Guitar Player Records, 1976) is as superlative and uncompromising a blues recording as you're apt to find, with the guitarist at the peak of his significant prowess.
By 1979, however, Bloomfield's increasing problem with substance abuse would turn him into an unreliable hire, and both his untimely passing in 1981 and the passage of time have resulted in his becoming largely forgotten. But hopefully, with the release of the superb From His Head to His Heart to His Hands
, Bloomfield's legacy will be revitalized, and younger generations of blues fans will discover the guitarist whose goal in life was really quite simple:
"You know, I like sweet blues.
The English cats play very hard funky blues.
Like Aretha [Franklin] sings is how they play guitar.
I play sweet blues. I can't explain it.
I want to be singing. I want to be sweet."
Rest easy, Mike Bloomfield. Singing and sweet, you most certainly were.
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).