Mike Bloomfield’s reputation in the US came largely as a result of his incendiary playing on two albums with The Paul Butterfield Blues Band: his fiery, innovatory assertiveness inspired many white middle-class college kids to switch from acoustic to electric guitar. Bloomfield’s greatest impact was in San Francisco, where the likes of the Airplane’s Jorma Kaukonen, The Fish’s Barry Melton and the Dead’s Bob Weir were overwhelmed by Bloomfield’s fearsome technique and passionate improvisation. All three guitarists appear in Bob Sarles’ fascinating documentary, Sweet Blues, released for the first time on this 3CD+DVD box set.
Bloomfield once dismissed the ’Frisco players as amateurs – and, compared to the Chicago-born Bloomfield, they were. Having soaked up the blues while playing in the city’s Southside clubs, Bloomfield injected that experience into his work with Butterfield, with his revolutionary approach and penetrating tone reaching its apotheosis on the expansive East West. For many, though, Bloomfield’s work with Dylan sealed his reputation.
Fittingly, From His Head To His Heart was produced and curated by Al Kooper, who played alongside Bloomfield in 1965, when Dylan famously plugged in at Newport, and on the historic Highway 61 sessions. The Dylan outtakes will doubtless generate most interest here, including the instrumental track for Like A Rolling Stone and an alternate Tombstone Blues featuring The Chambers Brothers. From His Head To His Heart also features Bloomfield’s memorable final live performance, joining Dylan on stage in San Francisco on 15 November 1980 on The Groom’s Still Waiting At The Alter. Three months later, he was found dead in his car from a suspected drug overdose.
All Bloomfield’s best high-profile work came in the 60s with Dylan, Butterfield, the ambitious but short-lived Electric Flag (masterminded by Bloomfield in ’67), and the game-changing Super Session LP of 1968, recorded with Al Kooper. A couple of unreleased live Flag jams and three raw but enthusiastic tracks from Bloomfield’s 1964 audition session for Columbia’s John Hammond are among this collection’s particular delights.
Substance abuse dogged Bloomfield’s career through the 70s; he even stopped playing in 1970, until friends such as BB King and devotee Carlos Santana helped him clean up. Yet the intensity of Bloomfield’s music was mirrored in his troubled life: wracked by insomnia and shunning the limelight, he continued to seek solace in heroin and alcohol.
Bloomfield’s 70s output was patchy, confining his finest work to low-key club dates, represented here by vigorous performances at McCabe’s Guitar Shop in Santa Monica, in 1977, but, surprisingly, there is nothing from his well-regarded Guitar Player magazine recordings. In fact, Al Kooper’s selection often falls short: too reliant on late 60s Super Session-type jams and missing the opportunity to delve into Bloomfield’s recordings with Chuck Berry, Mitch Ryder, Dick Campbell, Mother Earth and James Cotton, rather than Janis Joplin and Muddy Waters. Bloomfield’s contributions to soundtracks such as The Trip and Steelyard Blues are also untapped.
To borrow the Electric Flag album title, this tribute has been a long timing coming, but it doesn’t quite do justice to an artist whose integrity ultimately saw him turn his back on fame. Mick Houghton