Before his death on February 15, 1981 at the age of 37, guitarist Mike Bloomfield was mainly known for four projects of the 1960s. He was one of the so-called “3 Bs” of American blues in the seminal Paul Butterfield Blues Band, along with Butterfield himself and second guitarist, Elvin Bishop. Among the group’s standout recordings, Bloomfield is perhaps most fondly remembered for his fluid and distinctive lead lines on East-West (1966). In addition, along with keyboardist Al Kooper, Bloomfield contributed to Bob Dylan’s 1965 Highway 61 Revisited. Then, Bloomfield founded, and briefly led, one of the first horn-driven bands in the late ’60s, The Electric Flag. As it happens, the Flag was formed at the same time Kooper founded Blood, Sweat, and Tears before the two left their bands and went on to produce the highly influential side one of the 1968 instrumental classic, Super Session. Based on these achievements alone, Mike Bloomfield deserves a place among the rock royalty of the most transformative decade in rock. But there’s more.
Expanding on what he assembled in the 1998 Don’t Say That I Ain’t Your Man: Essential Blues 1964-1969, it was appropriately Kooper who curated and produced the new retrospective of Bloomfield’s legacy in the four-disc box set, From His Head to His Heart to His Hands that hits stores on February 4, 2014. Gratefully, Kooper not only pulled together the best known recordings of Bloomfield’s career, but he also dug up a generous sampling of outtakes and live jams that should please not only old-time fans of Bloomfield, but anyone who loves the blues in general, whether played on acoustic or electric guitar, whether a solo performance or a full brass band.
On top of all that, in addition to the three discs of music, there’s a DVD, Sweet Blues: A Film About Michael Bloomfield, which is chock-full of interviews with Bloomfield and those who knew him. Simply said, this is a box fans of Bloomfield and his musical milieu should not miss.
The proceedings begin on disc one with a handful of previously unreleased acoustic demos Bloomfield recorded in 1964 with Columbia Records producer John Hammond, Sr. The tracks were impressive enough back then to end with Hammond telling Bloomfield he was going to give him a contract. Those guitar showcases are just as impressive now. Then, Kooper found some rarities from the Highway 61 Revisited sessions, including an instrumental version of “Like A Rolling Stone” and a take of “Tombstone Blues” featuring the Chambers Brothers on background vocals.
After these rarities, the anthology offers a too-brief selection from the Butterfield years, and this era would not be complete without the title track from East-West. It was and is a 13-minute encapsulation of nearly every trope to come in the ’60s West Coast San Francisco psychedelic palate. “East-West” was Bloomfield’s fusion of jazz, rock, blues, as well as Indian ragas in a free-form brew never heard before but reworked many times since. Speaking of brief, we only get two songs from the debut 1968 A Long Time Comin’ from the Electric Flag, “Killing Floor” and “Texas.” No “Wine”? Oh well. Instead, the disc closes with several live Flag numbers that will mainly interest Flag completists only.
So far, we’ve heard Bloomfield in a variety of settings ranging from traditional acoustic country blues and the powerhouse Chicago harp of Paul Butterfield to the more Memphis style of blues, with horns supporting the vocals of Nick Gravenites (“Killing Floor”) and Buddy Miles (“Texas”). In a sense, Bloomfield’s trajectory hits its zenith on disc two with the polished jazz/rock of the essential tunes from Super Session, namely “Albert’s Shuffle,” “Stop,” and “His Holy Modal Majesty,” the latter something of a sequel to “East-West.” (While they don’t often get their due, the tracks also benefited from the support of ex-Electric Flag members Barry Goldberg on keyboards, Harvey Brooks on bass, and the outstanding drums and cymbals work of Eddie Hoh.) The rest of the second disc is live jams that are spun off from Super Session, some previously unreleased, some captured on The Live Adventures of Mike Bloomfield and Al Kooper (1968) and Fillmore East: Al Kooper and Mike Bloomfield. The Lost Concert Tapes 12/13/68 released in 2003.
The third disc, “Last Licks,” is a grab-bag of mostly live solo work and Bloomfield supporting folks like Muddy Waters (“Can’t Lose What You Ain’t Never Had” and Janis Joplin (“One Good Man”). Opening with the funny, acoustic “I’m Glad I’m Jewish,” disc three is both a full circle collection with Bloomfield returning to his traditional blues roots as well as a continuation of where his heart, head, and hands have been all along, just without the fanfare he enjoyed during his heyday. True enough, his heroin addiction was beginning to show its sad influence, and Bloomfield is not exactly on fire in these rather simple, straight-forward jams.
But it all ends on a musical high note, that being his final public performance in 1980 at a Bob Dylan concert in San Francisco. Bloomfield joins Dylan on the previously unreleased “The Groom’s Still Waiting at the Altar” after we hear Dylan praising Bloomfield’s guitar work when the two played at the immortal 1965 Newport Folk Festival where Dylan shocked the folk world by plugging in publicly for the first time. Full circle indeed.
We hear many other testimonials from fellow artists on the excellent DVD, Sweet Blues, where it’s clear Bloomfield has long been seen as a musician’s musician, even if the general public never fully recognized him as a “guitar god.” This is due, perhaps, to the fact Bloomfield always preferred a clean and linear guitar style without resorting to distortion or feedback. In addition, Bloomfield’s place in the limelight was often as a supporting player and not as the man in the middle. Many of his own observations are telling, as when he states he wasn’t especially impressed with the musicianship of the players he saw in the big-name artists of the San Francisco scene. But, like too many of his contemporaries, drugs became his nemesis, and he’s candid about how his heroin addiction led to his putting his guitar aside for over a decade.
The box also includes a 40-page booklet featuring a photo gallery and liner notes by musician Michael Simmons, which naturally focuses on the brief tenure of Bloomfield as a player closer to his blues roots than many of the musicians he shared the stage and studio with.
Since 1983, there have been various posthumous retrospectives of the work of Michael Bloomfield, but none have had the scope of From His Head to His Heart to His Hands. It’s too easy to say this box was a long time comin’, and it’s equally obvious it is long, long overdue. However deep your current Bloomfield collection might be, there are nuggets here for every devotee of Bloomfield, the music of the late ’60s, and the blues as a whole. Thanks to Al Kooper and everyone involved for reviving the work of an artist who already has his share of admirers but deserves a far wider, and younger audience. Personally, I was delighted to both go down memory lane again and hear many juicy jams only now pulled from the vaults. So far, this is my favorite release of 2014.