The Paul Butterfield Blues Band released the great East West in 1966. It was mostly composed of curated blues tracks played with reverence and expertise by Paul Butterfield on vocals and harmonica, Mike Bloomfield playing a Les Paul through a Twin Reverb, Elvin Bishop on guitar and vocals, Mark Naftalin on piano and organ, and the rhythm section of bassist Jerome Arnold and drummer Billy Davenport. There are great covers on East West. In the Butterfield band’s hands, “Mary Mary”—penned by the Monkees’ Michael Nesmith—sounds as if the Yardbirds were an American group, and “Never Say No” features a terrific performance by Elvin Bishop that feels so molasses slow, it almost threatens to stop dead in its tracks. But, to me, the real star of the show is the 13-minute instrumental track “East West.”
“East West” is a musical journey with different sections constructed like the acts of a play. At 2:48, Bloomfield bursts out of the gate like a wild Arabian horse as he churns out a Middle Eastern solo that sounds sonically mystical. One of the amazing things is the energy level never ceases until the explosive finish at the seven-minute mark. During this solo, Bloomfield never channels sitar in a hippie-dippy, “Down in Monterey” style—it’s muscular, explosive, fiery, and dead serious. At the time, this was my first exposure to droning modal guitar playing, and it inspired hours of playing along with the album. Although, I didn’t know it at the time, Bloomfield was mostly—it’s hard to narrow it down to one thing—superimposing D harmonic minor over an A pedal. It’s fantastic playing that still holds up 50 years later.
I’ve applied Bloomfield’s influence on my own albums—actually, it creeps out on almost everything—but the tracks “Manic Depression” on Dream Dictionary, and “Backburner” from Orange, all display blatant Bloomfield-isms. But what I learned from Michael Bloomfield doesn’t stop at “East West.”
I think it was around 1975, when my pal Dennis Garibaldi and I went to San Rafael to hear Bloomfield. We expected to hear a full band playing Super Sessions, or, in the best-case scenario, an “East West” modal jam that would last hours. Instead, we found ourselves in a pizza parlor with a dozen or so attendees, and a solitary Michael Bloomfield with an acoustic guitar and a movie projector. As I was a teenager with bigger than life expectations, I was immediately disappointed.
After playing one or two acoustic-blues pieces, Bloomfield showed a film on a 16mm projector. His intention was to expose the audience to the blues music he loved. It was a perfectly timed experience for me. As the projector clicked away, Bloomfield told us about the blues artists in the film. The very next day, I bought an armful of LPs that I still have today. Muddy Waters, Hound Dog Taylor, Lightning Hopkins, and the list went on. That evening made an indelible mark on my musicality, and, to this day, I’ve felt a debt of gratitude to Michael Bloomfield’s passion, knowledge, and generosity.