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East-West: The Butterfield Blues Band

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East-West: The Butterfield Blues Band

This article originally appeared in Issue 6 of   Crawdaddy   on October 20, 1966.

Ever since Newport of a year ago, the Butterfield Band has been happening. Their first album was received with almost unanimous praise, and for good reason: it was a generally excellent representation of what the group can really do, particularly instrumentally. The production, especially the vocal-instrumental mix, was excellent. Paul’s singing was less distinguished than other aspects of the album, but was, nonetheless, good. Live, of course, everybody raves about the kind of excitement this band creates when it’s having a good night. Nevertheless, l personally have reservations about their work, and this new album tends to reinforce my prior conviction that they aren’t on as sure a footing as they could be.

To begin with, let’s look at the members of the band individually, and see what problems lie within their specific styles. The three B’s, Butterfield, Bloomfield, and Bishop, are all innovators, and good ones. Butterfield sticks closely to the Chicago South Side style, but is generally very versatile and imaginative in handling many different types of blues. His all-around playing is excellent here although major problems develop on the instrumentals, which will be discussed later.

Elvin Bishop is a much more advanced rhythm guitarist than you would traditionally expect in a blues band. This is a mixed blessing: sometimes he plays too much, sometimes too little; but most of the time his playing is really appropriate. However, l think his work on the first album was generally more solid and more consistent than it is now. On the new album he has abandoned his triplet chord patterns on the slow blues and the result is that there tends to be a hole in the bottom of the sound (like on “I Got A Mind to Give Up Living”). That is, Elvin’s overall rhythm patterns aren’t strong enough in most instances on this album.

Mike Bloomfield is the outstanding musician of the group. In fact, I consider Mike the best lead guitarist I’ve heard in any rock band, even though I’m basically a rock addict and the music here is mostly blues. His technique, his phrasing, his timing, and his taste are all extraordinary. The only one who can come close is Jeff Beck, but Jeff hasn’t yet recorded anything that compares to what Bloomfield has done.

Once we get into the other three members of the group we begin to hit some real problems. First of all, Davenport. There is no doubt that this man is a fine drummer. However, stylistically l do not think he fits into what the group as a whole is doing, which is, very generally speaking, playing loud blues-oriented music. He lacks the power, the definiteness one expects to hear from the drummer. On “Two Trains Running,” for example, there aren’t a lot of fancy things to do. The important thing to me is that the snare drum cut through the overpowering electronic sound. After all, when a band is playing at Butterfield volume, a drummer is going to have to hit hard simply to be heard. This Billy fails to do, with disastrous consequences. For the result is a general looseness in the whole rhythm, a real lack of drive. Compare the drum sound Davenport puts down with the drumming you get from a good rock drummer (Kenneth Buttrey, for example), and you’ll see the overall difference in quality. Billy comes off a little too jazzy and a lot too weak for the Butterfield bag.

Naftalin, on the other hand, seems to be very well aware of what he should be doing, but seems unable to do it. His piano solos strike me without exception as being technically excellent but musically overdone and even sterile. “Get Out of My Life Woman” (about which more will be said later) is representative of this problem. Naftalin takes the great piano line Lee Dorsey used on the original recording of this tune and blows it up into a wildly overdone thing. I prefer the style and control and feeling of an Alan Price or the simplicity of Lee Dorsey himself.

Finally, Jerome Arnold is a boring and ordinary bass man. If you listen carefully to records by the Jefferson Airplane and the Yardbirds, you’ll discover the bass possibilities in electronic music are exploding. Yet Arnold is content to play the same old bass lines we’ve been hearing ever since Chicago blues began, and it’s a drag when so much of the rest of the group is innovating and doing new things. “East-West” (the cut) is his ultimate downfall, wherein he just keeps playing those two lines over and over and seems to be going nowhere and contributing nothing.

Taking the album piece by piece, “Walkin’ Blues” is good; it’s not Robert Johnson, but it comes over surprisingly well. “I Got a Mind to Give Up Living” has a good solo, but drags terribly due to the weak rhythm. “All These Blues” is very nice and easy. “Mary, Mary” is simply bad rock ‘n’ roll. And “Never Say No” is wholly a matter of taste. I dig it.

Two things should be noted about these cuts in particular. First, the mix is generally very bad. The rhythm is too echoed, the vocals too loud, the bass is often too weak, and the piano occasionally under-recorded. Secondly, the great debate over Butterfield’s voice is necessarily raised again. I personally think that his voice is not a solid vehicle for much of the material on this record, for a variety of reasons. He has style, yes, and he has taste; what he lacks is power and conviction, maybe even soul. Whatever it is, the biggest thing keeping the band from attaining a totally fine sound is Paul’s singing. This is especially the case on “Get Out of My Life Woman.” Overall, it’s the weakest cut on the record. When Lee Dorsey did this song it was a sleepy, slower, more relaxed, subtler piece all the way around, instrumentally as well as vocally. Paul, whose voice couldn’t have handled the tune in that style, has turned it into more of a melodramatic shouting kind of thing. And to anyone who has heard Dorsey’s version, which is one of the great records of the sixties, the overall effect can only seem feeble. The whole band is trying so “hard” to say something that seems so “easy” that it just manages to lose the whole song. At the same time I would single out “Two Trains Running” as an example of an excellent vocal by Paul. The whole cut is great, the arranging, the vocal, the guitar solo. I’d say it’s the best on the record. And it does show that given the right song and back-up he really can put the blues over well.

All of which leaves us with the two instrumentals, “East-West” and “Work Song.” Frankly, I don’t care for either. “Work Song” is basically a misguided attempt at jazz-rock. BIoomfield’s solo is excellent, Bishop’s is good; Butterfield’s is mediocre and Naftalin’s worse. None of the solos are really related to each other, and the overall effect is that of a practice session as opposed to that of a jam session. But the problem doesn’t really rest with the soloists. Rather, it lies with the rhythm section. When a cut is going to run eight minutes, the rhythm has got to really hold together. But ArnoId’s r&b bass lines are repetitious and become, as the track progresses, increasingly conspicuous for their irrelevance to what the soloists are doing. Davenport seems, as usual, unsure and weak. And the organ and rhythm guitar compensate little for these problems. I might add that as jazz, none of the soloists are really playing well, although l like what Bloomfield is doing. In any event the group has done the whole thing better live.

In “East-West” (the cut) the criticism of the rhythm section again applies. But more than that, I don’t think the kind of integration that a piece of this sort requires is present here. The cut could more appropriately have been titled “Fooling Around with Indian Sounds,” because that’s all that really happens. Bloomfield provides us with the only playing of any real note (it seems that he can make anything sound good), but Butterfield’s brief stint creates no particular mood and seems more chaotic than anything else (there are limits to what a harmonica can do). Bishop also fails to generate any excitement during his solo. Arnold successfully obstructs anything that does start to happen with his incessantly out-of-place Western bass line. I can see how some fans may really go for it because the overall sound is very novel, and the cut represents a genuine attempt to create something. Nevertheless, I feel it fails in that attempt, because it isn’t sufficiently organized and because there is no genuine interrelation between the various instruments in terms of what’s happening musically. I would have infinitely preferred three or four blues cuts in the thirteen-minute spot the song occupies.

So, as an album, where is East-West? It’s good; and the musicians who made it are good. But it’s not as good as these musicians can be, for reasons I’ve tried to point out in the course of this review. There is an overall lack of unity, both in terms of the musicians’ playing with each other, and in terms of the musicians getting into their music. When you listen to Rubber Soul, or an Animals album, for example, there is a unity to it; it’s not merely a collection of cuts, but a whole, single record. The listener is primarily aware of the musicians in terms of the group, rather than as a collection of soloists (although one is aware of the contribution each individual makes). On this album one hears mainly soloists, mainly individual strong points; the album as a whole has little impact. It’s not the kind of thing that you play over and over, although you may find a few cuts or solos that you like to hear frequently. And to me this is the great disappointment of this record: that it is not, for all its technical excellence, a coherent musical statement.

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