April 1, 2003

Al Kooper & Mike Bloomfield
Fillmore East: The Lost Concert Tapes 12/13/68
Michael Bloomfield records fall into two distinct categories: the rad and the rank. The former includes two exhilarating albums with Paul Butterfield (Paul Butterfield Blues Band and East-West), the first Electric Flag album (the horn-driven A Long Time Comin’), and two jam albums with keyboardist Al Kooper (Super Session and The Live Adventures of Mike Bloomfield and Al Kooper). Bloomfield cut these records during his prime, a short but intense period from 1965 to 1968. After that, heroin and his mercurial personality got the upper hand, causing him to record a string of solo albums that were often simply dismal. A recluse during much of the ’70s, Bloomfield died of an overdose—alone on a San Francisco street—in 1981.
But now, with Fillmore East: The Lost Concert Tapes 12/13/68, Bloomfield freaks have reason to celebrate. Containing almost an hour of previously unreleased music, this disc captures Bloomfield fronting a five-piece band at the height of his powers. We’re treated to chorus after chorus of edgy, chromatic-laced solos, and the fattest, clean Les Paul tone this side of heaven. Plugged straight into one or more Fender combos (for big venues, he favored a pair of Twin Reverbs), Bloomfield ricochets between snarling bridge-pickup tones and flutey neck-pickup timbres with berserk abandon. And he gets loud—you can hear his squealing bends echo off the Fillmore’s back wall. So fine!

Those familiar with The Live Adventures will recognize some of the tunes that Bloomfield and Kooper reprised for this show: “That’s All Right Mama,” “Together ’Till the End of Time,” “The 59th Street Bridge Song,” and “Don’t Throw Your Love on Me So Strong.” Other highlights include “It’s My Own Fault” (which features a young, unsigned Johnny Winter making his scorching Fillmore debut), a funky take on “One Way Out,” and a nine-minute version of “Season of the Witch.” Throughout, Bloomfield is relaxed and inspired. He’s clearly having fun spinning his tightly wound, stuttering phrases to the large, enthusiastic crowd.

Though Bloomfield is transcendental, this outing is musically inconsistent. Kooper’s vocals, as always, are an acquired taste (not that Bloomfield is a great singer, but at least his warbly
vocals exude a loopy charm). Bass giant Jerry Jemmott (Aretha Franklin, B.B. King, Herbie Hancock, George Benson) grooves hard and sweet, but the drummer sounds like he has spent more time backing strippers than playing 12/8 shuffles. The band rocks when the rhythm section connects, but the train wrecks are frequent and fearsome. Fortunately, the carefully remastered audio is clear and dimensional. When Bloomfield digs into a solo, you can feel his flatpick scrape the strings and the speaker cones growl in protest.

If you’ve never heard Bloomfield at his best, The Lost Concert Tapes will reveal why he’s a legend. If you’re a Bloomfield connoisseur, you’ll revel in his fluid mix of classic moves and new licks. Above all, anyone who loves a ripping sunburst Les Paul will find tonal nirvana. Columbia/Legacy. —Andy Ellis  

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