The Delta Snake Review

The Delta Snake Review


Friday, May 30, 2014

Classic 60s Blues Album Review: East-West by The Paul Butterfield Blues Band

Author's Note 2014: This review was actually written in the 90s and was part of the Delta Snake "Classic 60's Blues Album" series of reviews. 

It's a special piece to me, as one of the founding members of the Butterfield Blues Band, Mark Naftalin, took an interest in the review, and looked over early drafts. He gave me a great deal of feedback, and back stories, that not only increased my insight on the album, but my conversations with him about the album are some of my fondest memories from that time. Mark was a generous person with his time and insights.

For that reason, I've made very few edits, only where there were obvious mistakes in grammar. Some of the superlatives and phrases used, I probably wouldn't use now, but I wanted to leave the review basically as Naftalin saw it published.

CLASSIC 60'S BLUES ALBUM REVIEW: EAST-WEST by The Butterfield Blues Band

Note: You'll notice that as the review unfolds, that many of the songs are 
discussed out of order. The reason is that I wanted the review to follow the 
flow of my discussion, and also, because most influential changes to music 
come from particular songs, and not necessarily entire albums.

I owe a great deal of thanks to one of the founding members, Mark Naftalin. He looked at the early drafts, and added many important and helpful comments, which are reflected in the text. The final 
opinions are my own, of course, and don't necessarily reflect Mark's view of this classic recording.

The Paul Butterfield Blues Band's "East-West" recording was one of the most important 60's era records, particularly in it's effect on other musicians.

English blues artists like John Mayall tend to be viewed as more famous than Butterfield. Mayall's most famous record of the period, the Blues Breakers with Eric Clapton, sounds more vintage today, and only the most hardcore Clapton fan would think of it as being influential. 

Although, in all fairness, Clapton joined 
Mayall's Blue Breakers in reaction to the "pop" direction the Yardbird's (his previous band) were taking. The intent was revival, not innovation, and for it's time (and in many ways now) it is still one of the classic English blues records.

Until Mayall began his various jazz experiments, he was viewed more as 
someone carrying on the eternal flame of the pure blues as opposed to someone who was influential in the rock scene. Most of his impact came from his bands being a sort of training ground for guitarists who later had varying levels of impact on the 60's rock scene.

I should add that the list wasn't made up of minor talents. Eric Clapton, Peter Green, Mick Taylor, and Freddie Robinson all did stints in Mayall's bands. You add other instrumentalists like Sugarcane Harris, the great blues and jazz violinist, and a horn section that became Collesseum in terms of talent.

Paul Butterfield's band was different. Their first recording was a dynamic 
work that easily could have led to any of the same paths that the English 
Blues bands took; boogie, like Savoy Brown, blues-rock like (Green-era) Fleetwood Mac, or perhaps blues influenced rock in the Cream vein.
Given the charisma Mike Bloomfield had at the time, and particularly after their work with Dylan, they could have become rock stars. As it was, many later guitar greats like Carlos Santana (who stated it in an interview) clearly admired Bloomfield. Bloomfield was probably the first of the 60s American "Guitar Heroes," and as a side note, one of the guitarists who popularized the use of the Gibson Les Paul in rock.

Instead, the band turned left and moved into a more intricate jazz and modal direction, with at least one step into popular rock. It wasn't a sound that evolved in the often insular world of the was as much a part of 
the times as the San Francisco bands and in many ways, predated and anticipated what happened later in the 60's.
Their awareness of the outside world is what differentiated them from 
a lot all of the young blues bands of the day. Fleetwood Mac tended to emulate or relive the blues. The Butterfield Blues Band took the blues and related to the music as younger musicians aware of rock and jazz would have...the blues on the East-West record clearly show a band that was aware of modal 
scales, jazz of all types, New Orleans R&B, and rock.
One change was Sam Lay's replacement on drums, a genius of a drummer named 
Billy Davenport. While Sam's work in the first album was superb, Davenport had a flexibility that could only come from a drummer who understood rhythm as a "pulse," providing propulsion as opposed to a beat, very much in the jazz sense.

It may be a digression, but it's interesting to briefly look over what was happening in 1966 when East-West came out. Folk-rock was becoming big, the Jefferson Airplane was still a harmony folk-rock band, the Beach Boys and the Byrds were beginning their periods of adventursome work, Miles Davis was 
exploring modal-based jazz that seemed simpler on the surface but had a concept of space and time that became highly influential, and the Beatles and Stones were turning everyone's idea of what a rock group was upside down.

The English Blues scene was splitting into a traditional faction exemplified by early Fleetwood Mac and John Mayall, and a highly experimental one typified by the Yardbirds.

By the late 60's, many of the above trends and ideas had merged...long 
improvisational jams based on interpretations of Coltrane, Miles, Sitar 
music, and other influences could be heard everywhere, and music, it seemed,
became more "serious," but freer.

But back in 1966, there was "East-West." As you listen to the title cut, "East-West," and follow the various changes in dynamics over it's 13 minute length, one realizes that this particular work was visionary. In it, one can see the entire gamut of jazz, modalisms, and even San Francisco psychedelic.
I've begun discussing what was actually the album closer first, but we do have the advantage of hindsight, and that cut did become the most famous and influential. 

The title cut was also a microcosm of the changes in the band's sound. Gone was the straight ahead attack of the first release. In it's place was a complexity that wasn't always apparent on the surface. 

A careful listen will reveal a complex jazz-like undercurrent. It had a rhythm track that could have accomodated a multitude of ideas and tonalities. It made the various improvisations that followed work like a seamless flow of related ideas.

Elvin Bishop took the first solo, and opened with the most fiery of the improvisations. Although not as technically adept as Bloomfield, his 
solo was more aggressive. His solos were perhaps ideas generated more by enthusiam than technique. 

The ideas and riffs were simpler, with more attack, and on the surface, could 
strike the listener as showing less understanding of the modal concepts being explored.

One thing is obvious to me...the solo works well as pure sound. The often distorted riffs had tonal ideas that wouldn't have been out of place on a early 70's jazz rock album. Although Bishop's solo is rooted in rock 
and blues, it still sounds fresh, and more so today.
At the time, Bloomfield's work tended to get the most attention, but to these ears, Bishop's work was just as integral to the success of the arrangement. It is a hard thing to quantify and put into words, but the best way to say it is that it is his energy that draws you into the song.

Butterfield's harp solo comes next, and he amplified the sonic attack that Bishop opened with. The harp tone is aggressive, and as it unfolds, comes across as a series of sharp, rapid ideas. At times, the music would seem to
call for a fast flurry of notes (as in a traditional blues solo), but he would instead reverse practice and follow a trail upwards, then explore the tonal microtones and subtleties of a particular note or chord.

In a sense, one could imagine that Butterfield may have shared a closer 
bond with Bishop than with Bloomfield (Bishop being the original guitarist in the band). It shows in the music. The two solos sound as if built from the same mind, or at least two minds with a definite bond or understanding.

Bloomfield comes in next, and his cleaner tone and rapid-fire ideas are an ideal change in dynamics. His solo builds very impressively, and the modal explorations show us a guitarist who seems exhilarated at discovering and exploring a new, and freer territory.

Bishop's guitar comes back in, and the two then build up to a peak that once again becomes almost pure tone and sound. One would be hard pressed to 
find a better example of such pure sonic beauty, all the more remarkable for 
being created in 1966 by what was known as a blues band.
The peak then subsides, and the rest of the song then builds from a series of ideas that, at least on record, anticipate the "spacy jams" of the San Francisco bands.

One other major departure in the group sound was not of the intellectual or theoretical variety. For whatever reason, the Band also covered a song by 
Mike Nesmith, a song-writer who was then a member of the then 
popular pop group, the Monkees. 

The band wasn't actually aware of this, since the song was submitted to them in the usual way songs are looked at and evaluated for a new album in demo form. 

Anyway...the song was "Mary, Mary," and actually a song that many rock 
critics considered a good one. It comes across as a remarkable and successful rock-blues experiment that still sounds as good as anything any modern blues artist has done since.
The arrangement, which was originally a riff-song in it's pop form, is done here as an darker piece, using a heavier guitar opening, with harp and piano counterpoint. It was an arrangement that owes a lot of it's success to Naftalin, an excellent keyboardist.

The other extended number on the record is "Work Song," and shows a jazz 
sensibility in the sound. It covered a wide range of approaches. Various aspects of the general flow include the theme in stop time; a succession of solos; final solo goes into trading twos for several 
choruses with ever more intricate and wild overlaps; rhythm break on the 
downbeat of the final theme, which is in stop time; repeat of theme. 

It flows a lot better than I describe it, believe me. Bloomfield's use of the telecaster as a jazzy guitar in this song is 
something I wish other musicians would do more often. His solo builds and
climaxes with octave runs, which in 1966 was a rare technical effect in the blues. If you love Albert Collin's "Highway is Like A Woman," you'll understand what I'm talking about.
Naftalin contributes organ work that is both adept and beautifully conceived. One interesting aspect is that he uses a lighter, cooler tone than the funkier Hammond sound of the day. It may have not have come across as powerfully as, say, a Jimmy Smith number back then, but the cooler tone sounds more modern, and hasn't dated.

Bishop's solo is the final one. It's interesting to hear him here, and in later cuts, as it contrasts strongly from the Southern and Goodtime rock and roll he later did in the 70s (with considerable success, I might add).
One of the strongest jazz flavored songs, yet strongly rooted in blues is "Two Trains Running." It opens with a unison riff, hard bop style, and the shuffle rhythm that follows moves forward with a energy that reminds me of Art Blakey or Cannonball Adderly (who did some pretty fine blues also when he was in the mood).
The record actually opens with "Walkin' Blues," and features the arrangement that became one of the definitive versions. Nowadays, most rock and 
blue bands use that same march-rhythm that drives the cut along. Perhaps this version isn't as well known as Elmore's arrangement of "Dust My Broom," but Robert Johnson was rarely done any better.

Next comes "Get Out Of My Life, Woman," which is done about as perfectly as you can do it. Most versions go hard on the rhythm, and use a hard funk approach. In this case, the band decided to lay back a touch, and the result is dramatic for such a small change. 

Davenport and Arnold's work is superb. Laying back on the rhythm made it an ideal keyboard song, and Naftalin's work 
here is the backbone of the arrangement. His right hand work interacts with the rhythm section perfectly, and his fills and melody work give the music a sophistication that will appeal to a modern listerner even today.

"I"ve Got A Mind To Give Up Living" is a slow blues, done ballad. Paul not only sings with great power, but with a natural sense of emotion that makes it classic. A cut that still sounds great now.

Also, the way the piano and guitars interact, and at some points combine to create a single chord is amazing. "All These Blues" turns the tempo up, and is a sort of chugging blues. Like the song 
before, the key boards and guitars are used as a sort of ad-hoc horn section. Butterfield's harp solo cuts through and is combined with vocals in a call and response manner. Each idea sounds perfect, and focused.
"Work Song," Mary, Mary," and "Two Trains Running" follow, and have been 
discussed already in detail. 

Next up is "Never Say No." It's actually called (by it's author Percy Mayfield) "Never Say Naw." It's a quiet number, in the "Tin Pan Alley" mold, but done like, say, Mose Allison would have done it.

The general mood is atmospheric, and the band's playing understated. It should be noted also that this was Elvin's first recorded vocal, and an excellent debut.

The set ends with "East-West," and it's placement is ideal. It's as if all the changes and subtle touches throughout the work was leading to this point. It's one of the greatest album closers of all time.

As time passes, I think there has been, and will be an awareness that the 
blues underwent a lot of changes during the 60's that were as momentous as 
any that occured in the 50's.
At the forefront of that change was the Butterfield Blues Band, 

What they did with the blues is what makes the music of the band so great. They chose exploration, change, and most of all, the idea that the
blues was an expression if the times.
In this they were akin to the great explorers in the jazz scene.

Thursday, May 29, 2014

The 60s Japanese Gold Foil Pickup: A new legend, or the next Beany Baby style bubble?

One of the biggest crazes in vintage guitar pickups is the use of the "gold foil" type, which were standard on cheap guitars primarily made in Japan in the 60s.

Information on the pick up is both plentiful and contradictory. Particularly on the Internet.

There is one indisputable fact, if you're selling the right one (there's many different variations), you can get up at $300 for it.

Most are just simple magnet pick ups that had a textured gold foil-like covering placed on them, but a thin metal casing placed on top (but with the gold foil showing through).

The story about the rising popularity of the gold foil begins like many other guitar fads, the right celebrity used one, and as a result it became fashionable to have one. That type pick up had already been put into a modern guitar, like with the guitarist for the Cure, but it didn't have much effect on guitar fashion.

That guitar player was Ry Cooder, who's as respected a guitar player, at least among other guitar players, as a player can get.

The story begins when David Lindley, another respected slide guitar player, gave Cooder a gold foil pick up. He had it mounted in the middle position on a Stratocaster (which has three pick ups), but here's an important point, the third pick up, or what they called the bridge pick up nearest the bridge was a pick up taken from an old lap steel guitar. That's the pick up you probably hear more often on his records than the gold foil.

That version of the stratocaster is now nicknamed the Cooder caster.

In a past interview that I read, and I'm afraid I can't recall the publication, he liked the gold foil because of what guitarists call it's "clean sound,"or undistorted tone. He felt that the sound had a clarity that had a sort of open transparent quality to it.

That's the primary reason he it had put in, and that's the main reason he uses it.

Around the same time, after all nothing happens in a vacuum, the prices of regular Fender guitars and Gibsons were going up drastically due to collectors.

One of the results of this was that the older Japanese guitars made in the 60s started to become popular as collectors items that were both unique and still at the time affordable.

I think these two factors combined to make the gold foil pick up popular. That plus the fact that some of the gold foils were made by the Dearmond company, who were at one time legendary for their pick ups on now vintage Gretsch guitars and on their own branded models.

The fact that a bigger company like Dearmond made some cheaper pick ups for the Japanese models wasn't an unusual practice.

The now famous Buck Owen guitars, which were made cheap at the request of Owens himself, who felt that an expensive custom version wouldn't be affordable by most of his fans, turned out to be very valuable guitars.

The reason?

It turns out that Gibson wanted the contract very badly, if for no other reason to keep the production lines going in its factories, so they became the subcontractor that produced them. So those cheap Buck Owens guitars with the US flag coloring are now expensive collectors items because it's now known that those were made by Gibson.

Yet another cheap guitar I bought cheap and sold cheap...

So a cheap Harmony brand guitar could have well made Dearmond made pick ups on it.

In any case, gold foil pick ups became very popular. In fact some people would buy the old Japanese guitar, take off the pick ups, and toss the rest of it away. 

Since the guitars were cheaply made, that may have been the best fate for a few of them, but the Japanese made higher end guitars also that even today are still in good shape and it's hard to estimate how many of those were destroyed in the quest to get at those gold for pick ups.

You would think that after a few years this craze would've died down. After all, not all of those players are going to use that gold pick up like Ry Cooder did.

In fact, the opposite happened. The gold foil pick up became even more popular, as it turned out the things had a distinct sound even at rock 'n roll volume levels.

Guitar players not only kept the original Teiscos, Kay's, Harmony, and other cheapies, but put the pick up in some of the other guitars like Fender telecasters.

If you look at the numerous videos on YouTube of guitarists demonstrating their guitar with the gold foil pick ups, very few of them use those like Ry Cooder does.

Most use them like cranked up Gretsch guitars. Which makes sense, to me most of the gold foils have a sort of bright crunchy Dearmond sound, and that company made pick ups for Gretsch for years.

There is an irony to that because there's plenty of modern Dearmond gold foil pick ups on the market that are much cheaper and I think have more output and sound better.

Now that's what I think. On the discussion boards, it's become a cork sniffing debate with all sorts of reasons why the older ones are better than the new and vice versa.

Like probably more than a few guitar players, I got a hold of an old Japanese guitar myself with the gold foil pick up. I guess I just had to know.

I compared it to a Crown Kawai-Tiesco that I had, a mahogany body telecaster with a 70s era the Demarzio distortion humbucker in the bridge, and an Eric Clapton signature model Stratocaster.

I put the two Fenders away almost immediately, the gold foil to my ears wasn't even close. It did have more output and brightness than the Crown, and at rock 'n roll volume, the gold foil had a beautiful clarity and power.

However, the Crown had a cleaner more crystal-like clean tone, similar to a Fender Jazzmaster, and at high-volume, had more of a late 60s and early 70s Stones sound. Which is why I still have the Crown.

The gold foil, to my ears (and for accuracy I should note that I was using the "slim Jim" version most popular for mounting into telecasters) seemed more suitable for roots rock and rockabilly, and trash guitar like Link Wray. Not bad at all either.

I didn't bother to do much on slide since on the few occasions when I do use one, my approach and technique is nowhere similar to Ry Cooder's. I did do some light single string slide riffs, and I would have to say, I think it does have that glassy transparent sound he liked so much.

I should add, that a Dearmond guitar with the more modern gold foil pick ups can get the same sound if you set the amp correctly.

So on one hand, there have been some that criticize the use of gold for pick ups as simply a fashion simply due to Ry Cooder using one. It certainly has made the pick up a lot more expensive than it should be.

On the other hand, I lean towards the opinion that Cooder may have made it popular to use one again, but the real result is that an old classic pick up has found new life again. Evidenced by the fact that some of the more famous boutique pick up makers are now making their own versions of gold foils.

It may have started off as a fad, but it's now become one of the standard options that guitarists can pick from to shape their sound. 

I don't think these gold foils are going to go away anytime soon, but don't buy one for investment purposes. As these get more popular, and given how cheap it was to make them, it won't be long before they come down to the price of most modern pick ups.

Wednesday, May 28, 2014

Classic Movie Review: The Burmese Harp

Antiwar movies are actually one of the favorite themes in Hollywood movies. Since Hollywood isn't very spiritual, most of those kind of movies concentrate a lot on the butchery and dehumanization of the men. More than a few make sure that the movie is also a good war film to make sure has a good chance of doing well at the box office.

A lot of opposition to war is on spiritual and moral grounds, and a lot of films don't cover how men keep or regain their humanity during or after a war in the bigger spiritual picture.

An excellent movie on that theme is the 1954 Japanese masterpiece, "Harp of Burma," also known as "The Burmese Harp," directed by Kon Ichikawa, where a Japanese soldier who is being marched off as a POW sees the countless bodies of soldiers lying around in the jungle and becomes overcome with grief that virtually all of them will simply lie there until they rot, without their humanity preserved without even a burial.

He escapes and becomes a monk, and spends the rest of his life finding those bodies and giving them a proper burial. 

The movie explores a few other themes, like one scene where the British soldiers trap a Japanese unit in a house, but the British know the war is over and the Japanese soldiers don't, so there's a tense moment where both sides are facing off, so the British commander orders his men to lower their weapons, and they begin to walk forward towards the Japanese soldiers singing auld lang syne, and the camera shows the soldiers faces and how worn out, fearful and tired they are of fighting, and after a moment of confusion the Japanese soldiers understand what's going on and lower their weapons and with the tension gone soldiers on both sides begin crying, it's a very poignant scene. 

It's considered one of the best antiwar movies ever made, and it came out in a restored version a few years ago, which improved the movie as the cinematography was also masterful. It's a must for anyone who likes foreign films. 

It was actually based on a novel, but this is one case where the movie version is better, if for no other reason the translation of the Japanese book doesn't bring out the nuances the movie did. 

As it's a very spiritual story, there are scenes of warmth, and beauty, and one of the main themes is the harp which is the only possession the monk allows himself. In his ascetic life, and the misery and death that he sees, the music that he creates on the harp comes off as a metaphor for his soul, the warmth and beauty of which makes it possible for him to continue the melancholy task he's given himself for the rest of his life.

There's plenty of other classics and antiwar genre, and all worth seeing, and this is one film that belongs at or near the top of that group.