“He never wanted to be a rock star–he was a guitar player.” This poignant quote from fellow guitarist Barry Melton (of Country Joe and the Fish) provides much insight into the music and legacy of the late Michael Bloomfield. While sixties guitar gods like Jimi Hendrix and Eric Clapton are still household names today, Bloomfield remains underappreciated beyond a small circle of musicians and record collectors. With three CDs worth of music produced and compiled by Al Kooper, and an excellent documentary film directed by Bob Sarles, From His Head to His Heart to His Hands aims to give a legendary guitarist some long overdue recognition. Styled as an “audio/visual scrapbook,” the release fleshes out Bloomfield’s early life and prolific nature.
Sarles’ film Sweet Blues is a reverent look at Bloomfield’s life and music. Musings from Bob Weir, Jorma Kaukonen and the late Bill Graham all shed light on Bloomfield’s role in the heady sixties rock scene. Even more insightful are the interviews with his former bandmates and collaborators. Charlie Musselwhite first met Bloomfield when they were both young men sitting in at the blues clubs on Chicago’s South Side. Accompanied by a beautiful montage of black and white photographs, he reminisces about Bloomfield’s first recording sessions with legendary Columbia producer John Hammond. Elvin Bishop recounts his days in the Butterfield Blues Band playing alongside Bloomfield, and gives a colorful account of the band’s first encounters with the San Francisco hippie culture when they performed at the Fillmore.
Although a brilliant musician, Bloomfield was by all accounts a troubled man. An interview with Electric Flag vocalist and longtime friend Nick Gravenites takes a perceptive look at the hellhounds on Bloomfield’s trail. He grew up in a wealthy Chicago family, but had no interest in joining the family’s lucrative restaurant supply business. His single minded focus on guitars and the blues drove his overbearing father into fits of violent rage. Bloomfield himself was candid with interviewers about his use of heroin, and Gravenites approaches the issue with insight and compassion. He notes that Bloomfield never took an upper in his life—he was drawn to narcotics in an effort to calm himself down and “keep that brain from going all the time.”
Bloomfield’s genius is, of course, best revealed through his music. The three CDs included in this collection wonderfully document his multifaceted career. Bloomfield’s earliest recordings for John Hammond reveal a young, blues-smitten virtuoso bursting out of the gate. And his work with the Paul Butterfield Blues Band, including the seminal Gravenites-penned “Born in Chicago,” is well represented. A previously unreleased instrumental track by The Electric Flag also reveals how strongly Bloomfield was influenced by BB King. Bloomfield’s solo takes King’s melodic licks and singing vibrato and infuses them with the energy of a rocker.
Given Kooper’s involvement with the project, it’s no surprise that a generous helping of tracks from Super Session and the subsequent live gigs he and Bloomfield performed together are included. While Kooper and Bloomfield’s musical chemistry can’t be denied, for this listener the live recordings Bloomfield made with Nick Gravenites stand out as crowning achievements. On tracks like “Gypsy Good Time” and “It’s About Time,” Gravenites’ husky voice and Bloomfield’s lyrical playing go together like hush puppies and a pulled pork sandwich. Gravenites’ sharp, introspective lyrics and a tightly rehearsed backing band bought a level of creativity and innovation to the blues that still hasn’t been matched to this day. It’s a quibble, but more tracks culled from the Bloomfield/Gravenites collaborations My Labors and Live at Bill Graham’s Fillmore West would have nicely rounded out the collection.
Although Bloomfield left us in 1981, listening to the rich, soulful sounds that flowed from his guitar remains a humbling experience. This wonderful collection of music and history will likely inspire more than a few guitarists to hit the woodshed in an effort to up their game. Michael Bloomfield wouldn’t have wanted it any other way.
– Jon Kleinman