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 blues...it 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.