Michael Bloomfield – From His Head to His Heart to His Hands (review)

Michael Bloomfield – From His Head to His Heart to His Hands (Columbia / Legacy) review

Colossally important, criminally under-appreciated – Michael Bloomfield gets his due

Guitarist Mike Bloomfield may not be a household name, but every rock fan owes him a huge debt.  A new 3-CD/1-DVD “audio / visual scrapbook” From His Head to His Heart to His Hands sheds light on his incredible genius.

An excellent place to dig in is the accompanying DVD – “Sweet Blues: A Film about Michael Bloomfield.”  Clocking in at under an hour, it features testimonials and memories from heavyweights like Carlos Santana and Bob Dylan.  There’s also excerpts from an audio interview Bloomfield did before he passed away, so the guitarist can tell his story in his own words.

Like Clapton, Bloomfield was a student of the blues.  But, while EC and other British musicians learned their licks from records, Bloomfield went straight to the source; sneaking out at night to the South Side of Chicago to jam with Muddy Waters, Jimmy Reed, and Albert, BB, and Freddie King.  In fact, Bloomfield was such good friends with Waters, that he often babysat the bluesman’s grandkids.

Also like Clapton, Bloomfield hated the fame and adulation that came with being in a rock band.  But, while Clapton eventually got over it, Bloomfield never did.  As a result, his career is a frustrating sequence of stops and starts, never seeing something to fruition.

The box opens with three previously unreleased recordings from Bloomfield’s 1964 audition for legendary producer John Hammond and Columbia records.  It’s staggering to hear the guitarist, only 20 years old at the time, tear through a variety of styles.  The country picking of “Hammond’s Rag” is unbelievable.  At the tail end, Hammond can be heard saying “just wanted you to know that I’m signing you.”  Yet, the label was unsure how to market him, and these recordings remained unissued for years.  This is followed by a pair of full band recordings teaming the guitarist with harmonica player Charlie Musselwhite.

Back in the early Sixties, Bloomfield crossed paths with Bob Dylan who was impressed by his guitar playing.  When it came time for Dylan to go electric, he reached out to him to help flesh out Highway 61 Revisited.  His playing adds an extra layer of tension to these classic recordings.  For the box, they stripped away Dylan’s vocals on “Like a Rolling Stone,” so you can better hear the tasty countrified licks that Bloomfield employed.  Also of note is an alternate take of Dylan’s “Tombstone Blues,” featuring backup vocals by the Chambers Brothers.

Instead of forming his own band, Bloomfield joined forces with the Paul Butterfield Blues Band.  The tracks represented show a new, full tilt approach to a classic style.  With Butterfield on harmonica and Bloomfield tearing off guitar licks, the band boasted to fine soloists.

Hugely influential was the recording of “East West,” which was based around a single chord (much like explorations by Miles Davis).  Timing at over 13 minutes, popular music had never stretched this far – an exercise in pure improvisation, you can hear echoes of everyone from the Allman Brothers to Television.

Yet after only two Butterfield albums, the chronic insomniac was on the move again. His next project was a dream of melding rock and soul — the Electric Flag.  “Killing Floor,” from their debut, shows just that – horns, a soulful beat and stinging Bloomfield guitarwork.  Yet, the band was unable to sustain this momentum for an entire record.  Although, several unreleased live cuts show that this band had so much promise – check out the groove laid down on “Just a Little Something.”

Bloomfield’s next venture was a spontaneous session with friend Al Kooper and guitarist Stephen Stills. Dubbed Super Session, it would feature some of Bloomfield’s finest recorded work.  Largely made up of jams, Super Session paved the way for extended solos everywhere.  The ensuing concerts were even better – captured here on the Live Adventures of Mike Bloomfield and Al Kooper.

Unfortunately, the guitarist was never able to regain any momentum after that.  There’s a great cut teaming him with Janis Joplin on “One Good Man.”  He also accompanies his hero Muddy Waters on “Can’t Lose What You Ain’t Never Had.”  But, his high profile days were now behind him, as he fell into drug dependency.

Bloomfield recorded several spotty albums in the Seventies.  Instead of attempting to compile material from these, his latter years are represented by an acoustic performance at McCabe’s Guitar Shop recorded in 1977.  The tracks find Bloomfield in good spirits, especially on “I’m Glad I’m Jewish” and on a spoken piece about visiting the men’s bathroom.  One thing is certain, the guitarist hadn’t lost any of his amazing ability.

Unfortunately, Bloomfield never got a chance for a revival – he passed away of a heroin overdose at the young age of 37.

Lovingly compiled by friend and frequent collaborator Kooper, who provides an excellent essay, as well as play by play notes on key tracks.

Bloomfield helped expose the legendary Chicago bluesmen to a wider audience.  Through several extended pieces, he helped stretch the boundaries of what was acceptable in popular music.  And, he left us with a series of recordings that showcase some of the most blistering guitar work ever laid to tape.  All this can be found on the excellent new box set, From His Head to His Heart to His Hands.  —Tony Peters