Title: From His Head to His Heart to His Hands – An Audio/Visual Scrapbook
Artist: Michael Bloomfield
Format: 3CD/1DVD set
Release date: February 4, 2014
Title: True to the Blues: The Johnny Winter Story
Artist: Johnny Winter
Format: 4CD set
Release Date: February 23, 2014
These two box sets are presented differently, and each covers a singular artist with a very unique approach to blues music, but they are of a pair.
For one thing, the Johnny Winter box set starts with a couple of tracks from his pre-Columbia days and then gets down to business with Michael Bloomfield introducing Winter to an enthusiastic December 13, 1968 Fillmore East crowd. Winter was a guest of Bloomfield’s and Al Kooper’s band that night, and he proceeds to tear the walls down in a very successful introduction to the big leagues. Much of that same concert is heard in the Michael Bloomfield box set, but there is no overlap.
Another, more superficial connection is the simple fact that both men were white guys playing a music invented and dominated by black people, and doing a more than credible job at it. Mike Bloomfield’s style evolved from country blues and hewed more toward the folkier side of things. But he could tear it up with the best of them. His favored tone was more ringing with less bending and vibrato than some blues guitarists prefer. He was a perfect foil to white harmonica ace Paul Butterfield in the original Butterfield Blues band.
Johnny Winter is a rough and tumble Texas bluesman in the Lightning Hopkins and T-Bone Walker mold. He is incredibly quick-fingered and plays with an aggressive style perfectly suited to the meeting point of blues and rock. He also has quite a way with slide guitar playing. He is featured in both blues and rock settings in the 4-CD box set, issued in conjunctions with Winter’s 70th birthday.
Between these two box sets, there is a lot of music, and most of it is darn good. Both men exhibit a deep understanding of the blues, and play with different but equally adept technical wizardry grounded by soul and impeccable timing. If all this sounds academic, the music is not boring or clinical by any means. In fact, putting on any of the seven total CDs from these box sets and turning up the volume may well spawn an instant party.
Bloomfield’s life was short and somewhat tragic. Raised in a Jewish family in Chicago, he was often at odds with his father, a driven and successful businessman. Bloomfield’s sister speculates in the box set booklet that he was likely manic-depressive, and the drug and alcohol problems he developed in his formative years sped his demise. His flighty personality led him to walk away from many potential successes and yet his raw talent and gusto allowed him to string together a recorded legacy of superb music, including gigs with Bob Dylan on Highway 61 Revisited and Muddy Waters on Fathers and Sons. Bloomfield played lead guitar on the first two Butterfield Blues Band albums and led his own band, Electric Flag in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s.
Keyboardist and producer Al Kooper, one of Bloomfield’s closest collaborators, conceived and produced the box set, which he called an “Audio/Visual Scrapbook.” In other words, the 3 music CDs are only part of the presentation. The DVD, “Sweet Blues – A Film About Michael Bloomfield,” is not a throwaway promo or jammed-together collection of music videos like some box-set DVDs. The film, directed by Bob Sarles, is a tribute, a biography and a series of searing performance films. Capping the audio/visual experience is the excellent booklet, with essays by Kooper and Michael Simmons, and a detailed discography with Kooper’s comments about each tune’s context in Bloomfield’s career. Clearly, this project was a labor of love for Kooper, a long-overdue tribute to his late friend.
One of the many good production techniques Kooper used was keeping long spoken intros in the many live tracks. Bloomfield had a unique way of saying things, often laced with humor and seasoned with well-placed four-letter words. The first disc has two examples of just plain good production. The opening sequence is Bloomfield’s tryout for producer John Hammond at Columbia Records. True to his precocious style, Bloomfield ended the tryout with an improvised acoustic country workout, ala Merle Travis, which he called “Hammond’s Rag.” As the tape reel runs out, Hammond tells Bloomfield that he’s going to sign him. Later, in a snippet from a radio interview, Bloomfield gets going about what a “bad m-f’er” Paul Butterfield was, casting Butterfield as the original blues gangsta, and then the CD cuts right to the hard-driving opening track of the first Butterfield Blues Band album, “Born In Chicago,” featuring blistering solos by Butterfield and Bloomfield. The last disc contains later live tracks from Bloomfield, and its clear that time and substance abuse did dim his star somewhat. But, in his best moments, he still played with the fire and skill of his younger days.
The Johnny Winter box set is more traditional in format: four music CDs with a booklet essay basically detailing Winter’s biography and quoting numerous musicians saying what a great guitarist he was and is. The booklet is laid out with many color photos and a good discography/song list. But the centerpiece to the Winter box set is the music and only the music. And boy is there a lot of good music to hear. In his early days, Winter was a no-holds-barred player, coming on strong and aiming to shame any other guitarist in the room. He was somewhat of a white albino Robert Johnson—technically better than everyone else and filled with bravado. His voice is somewhat reedy, and in recent years he tends to more growl than sing. He’s also moved toward a mellower, more “proper” blues in his later years.
Some of the best material in Winter’s career was made with Rick Derringer on second guitar and second vocals. The two men had nicely contrasting styles, and seemed to goad each other to their technical limits. Winter’s brother, Edgar, was also a frequent band-mate in the early years. The first bass player to record with Winter was Tommy Shannon, later of Stevie Ray Vaughan’s Double Trouble band.
In the lexicon of black blues guitarists, Winter is more akin to Buddy Guy, Robert Johnson and Lightning Hopkins, whereas Bloomfield is more akin to Muddy Waters, Hubert Sumlin and Mississippi John Hurt. Both Bloomfield and Winter were highly influential on rock guitarists in the US and UK in the ‘70s and ‘80s.
These two box sets gather up plentiful offerings of great blues music. Both are highly recommended.
Reviewed by Tom Fine