Sunday, July 10, 2016

CD Review: The Paul Butterfield Blues Band’s Got A Mind To Give Up Living - Live 1966 (2016)

The Paul Butterfield Blues Band’s Got A Mind To Give Up Living
The Paul Butterfield Blues Band were musical trailblazers not because they were fusing blues music and rock ‘n’ roll unlike any band before them – John Mayall’s Bluesbreakers and the Yardbirds, among others, had already been doing so on the other side of the pond, even if they were relatively unknown to American audiences. No, Butterfield’s group was influential because they were the first interracial band to emerge from the 1960s, and they played Chicago blues with a rock ‘n’ roll edge that retained the emotional soul of the former and the unbridled energy of the latter.

The band was formed in Chicago in 1963 by homegrown blues fan Paul Butterfield and transplanted Oklahoman Elvin Bishop, both of who were ostensibly attending the University of Chicago at the time but, in reality, spent more time in the city’s notorious blues clubs than in classes. The offer of a regular performing gig prompted Butterfield to lure bassist Jerome Arnold and drummer Sam Lay from Muddy Waters’ band, and the Paul Butterfield Blues Band was formed. The band caught the eye of Elektra Records producer Paul Rothchild and, adding the phenomenal guitarist Michael Bloomfield to the line-up, they secured a record deal with the label and thus a legend was born.

The Paul Butterfield Blues Band’s Got A Mind To Give Up Living

After several misfires in the studio, the band released its self-titled debut album in late 1965; keyboardist Mark Naftalin was brought on board during the album’s recording sessions to expand the band’s sound. With Butterfield on the microphone and blowing a mighty blues harp (influenced by the likes of Junior Wells and Little Walter), Bloomfield adding his innovative lead guitar, Bishop providing solid rhythm guitar, and a seasoned rhythm section holding down the bottom end, the Paul Butterfield Blues Band quickly made a name for themselves as an electrifying and imaginative live outfit. Although the band’s debut album only rose to #123 on the Billboard album chart, it has since become a blues-rock touchstone and is widely considered one of the truly pioneering albums of the blues.

The band toured across the country in the wake of their debut album, appearing at the Newport Folk Festival in ’65 (even playing behind Bob Dylan); opening for the Jefferson Airplane in San Francisco; and hitting the east coast with a May 1966 performance at the Unicorn Coffee House in Boston, Massachusetts. By this time, Sam Lay had fallen ill and was replaced by jazz drummer Billy Davenport, himself an alumnus of Muddy Waters’ and Howlin’ Wolf’s bands. One of the Butterfield band’s rafter-shaking performances at the Unicorn Coffee House was recorded, the performance recently rediscovered and released on CD by the good folks at Real Gone Music as Got A Mind To Give Up Living – Live 1966. Previously unreleased – I can’t even find mention of this particular show in any of my bootleg LP references – this dynamite 13-track live set earns its legit release status.

Born In Chicago

Capturing the band at the peak of its performance skills, Got A Mind To Give Up Living offers up a mix of songs from the band’s debut and their upcoming musical tour de force, East-West, which was recorded and released later in 1966. Providing an hour-plus of low-fidelity, high-energy jams, the albums kicks off with a rattletrap instrumental vamp to introduce the band, jumping directly into an inspired take on Elmore James’ “Look Over Yonders Wall” that features Butterfield’s vibrant harp, Bloomfield’s stinging guitar licks, and the rhythm section’s rollicking instrumental backdrop. The band’s signature song, the Nick Gravenites-penned “Born In Chicago,” offers up a rowdy good time; Butterfield’s rapid-fire reading of the lyrics matched by a similarly fast-paced but multi-textured rhythm track, which itself is neatly embroidered by the frontman’s fluid harp playing.

“Love Her With A Feeling” is a vintage 1930s-era Tampa Red blues song famously covered by guitarist Freddie King; never recorded to album by Butterfield and crew, it’s delivered this night as a slow-burn Chicago blues dirge, Bloomfield’s amazing fretwork leaping out of the arrangement as Butterfield’s emotional vocals are underlined by his mournful harp and the band’s steady, traditional Chicago blues beat. Later recorded for East-West, “Get Out Of My Life, Woman” was written by New Orleans music legend Allen Toussaint, and the band evinces a funky Crescent City groove atop which Butterfield lays down his vocals and Naftalin adds his lively, melodic keyboard flourishes. With a similar vibe, the band’s cover of Smokey Robinson & the Miracles’ R&B gem “One More Heartache” is an up-tempo lil’ rocker that benefits from Davenport’s jazzy percussion and Butterfield’s upbeat vocals and brilliant accompanying harp.

The instrumental “Work Song,” also from the band’s then-forthcoming album, is a romping, stomping extended jam courtesy of jazz trumpeter Nat Adderley (brother of saxman Cannonball), the song allowing each of the band members to step into the spotlight for a little solo time. The performance never loses cohesion or energy, though (and the listener never loses interest, even after 12+ minutes). The title track here is one of the darker numbers from East-West, a real blues tear-jerker that features some of Butterfield’s most emotional and nuanced harp-play as well as Bloomfield’s frenetic guitar solos. The Muddy Waters’ blues standard “Got My Mojo Working” closes out the album, Arnold and Davenport laying down a fine shuffling groove that allows Butterfield’s harp and Bloomfield’s guitar to run free.

The Reverend’s Bottom Line

Let’s address the elephant in the room first, shall we? The sound on Got A Mind To Give Up Living is, to put it mildly, “less than perfect.” I have no doubt that engineer Mike Milchner did the best he had with the tapes he was provided, but as the old adage goes, “you can’t make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear.” Recording technology in 1966 was still in the cave-painting era, and whatever rig was used to capture this otherwise blistering performance was probably somewhat Neanderthal in nature. Bloomfield’s usually nuanced vocals are often washed out or redlined, too hot for the tape. There’s an overall echoed sound that club spelunkers will readily recognize, and more than a little fuzz growing on the cave walls, if you catch my meaning...

That being said, Got A Mind To Give Up Living documents a prime performance by the Paul Butterfield Blues Band, and there just ain’t that many of those around, Bunkie! Milchner seems to have brightened up the instruments so that, for instance, Butterfield’s wired harp playing and Bloomfield’s electrifying fretwork stand tall in the mix, while Davenport’s steady pounding of the skins provides an anchor for many of the performances. Arnold’s fluid bassplay is almost altogether lost in the din and distortion, and Bishop’s skilled rhythmic work is mostly indiscernible.

Longtime fans of Butterfield and Bloomfield will certainly appreciate the performance, but newcomers should probably start with The Paul Butterfield Blues Band and East-West albums before venturing into these waters. There’s no arguing, though, that at their prime the Butterfield gang was simply explosive on stage, and Got A Mind To Give Up Living captures the full megatonnage of the band’s performance. Grade: B+ (Real Gone Music, released June 3, 2016)

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