Tuesday, January 14, 2014

# 21 East West Live

   So, the second World War ends in late 1945, thousands of young American soldiers are elated to return home, settle into the more stable world of marriage, and as a result, millions of happy babies are born. In fact, by 1946 the United States is witnessing the beginning of the largest baby boom in its history. All of these new parents want life to be different for their kids, and encourage them to pursue an education as means of improving their opportunities.

    As it turns out, life really is different these baby boomer kids.  They are more urbanized, healthier, and better educated than their parents generation, and they seem to have more friends too. However, if all goes well, babies grow up into young adults, and often, this is when some socialization problems begin. Not only do these kids want a world different from their parents, they want a complete overhaul! This request for change from young people is nothing new, but because of the numbers, the demands are louder.

    All intelligent young people question the sense of a world that is seems to have been created by the previous generation. What they see is the apparent unnerving reality of a stifled middle class life in the suburbs, so many of them rebel. They want more social freedom, and the political change that comes with it. These baby boomers are hungry for new experiences, but new experiences require experimentation.  

    One of the important figures to tap into this desire for experimentation is New York psychologist Dr. Timothy Leary. He starts using psychedelic drugs in the late fifties, and by the mid sixties he is publicly promoting the awareness benefits of  LSD (lysergic acid diethylamide) or acid to rebellious youth. In the minds of many young people, Leary is a high profile example of someone who has successfully left the confines of their expected life, so, they adopt him as an important figure in their quest for social change. Then in 1966, Leary tells everyone who is listening to "Turn on, Tune in and Drop Out".  The borrowed phrase, and everything it suggests becomes popular enough that the elites of counter culture movement embrace his ideology, the media solidifies his profile, and young people eagerly jump on the bandwagon.

   Then, many young people, who might be using using alcohol, and smoking marijuana, start experimenting with hallucinogenic drugs like magic mushrooms, peyote, mescaline, and of course LSD. Parents feel ambushed! Their worries become the concerns of politicians, who console them with words, but it's too late, change is here. Gradually, the language of psychedelic drugs seeps into the mainstream with vocabulary about trips,  psychedelic colours. People are turning on to new ideas, and dropping out of society. Even the styles of clothes, movies, books, and of course the music they embrace changes. Much of it reflects the new culture surrounding psychedelic drugs

    Like many other hip young musicians of the day, Mike Bloomfield is experimenting with acid too. On one all night trip, he has revelations into the workings of Indian music while improvising on a song written by friend Nick Gravenites. As the Butterfield band's keyboardist Mark Naftalin explains to music critic Dave Marsh, 

"The song was based, like Indian music, on a drone. In Western musical terms, it 'stayed on the one'. The was tethered to a four-beat bass pattern and structured as a series of sections, each with a different mood, mode and color, always underscored by the drummer, who contributed not only the rhythmic feel but much in the way of tonal shading, using mallets as well as sticks on the various drums and the different regions of the cymbals. In addition to playing beautiful solos, Paul [Butterfield] played important, unifying things [on harmonica] in the background - chords, melodies, counterpoints, counter-rhythms. This was group improvisation. In its fullest form it lasted over an hour."

So, the results of his acid experience becomes an instrumental called "Raga Rock", but after many performances, the title changes to "East West". The creative chronology and technical aspects of "East West" warrants a more complete dissection than I can possibly offer in this brief blog, so I will leave that more complete analysis for you to pursue from other sources. It's contribution to musical history is the most important part of the instrumental.

   "East West" changes the direction of music in the 1960s, and those changes can still be heard today. It isn't jazz, but it has a jazz sensibility to it. It isn't blues either, yet you can hear blues in it. It isn't rock, but there is the rock tempo, and instrumentation. It evolves from a folk music, but it sure doesn't sound like folk music. It's a difficult question: What is "East West"?, but that is part of what makes its contribution to popular music so important. In the mid-sixties, nobody is composing, and performing music like it. I like to think of "East West" as an early example of post war, urban roots music or Electric Americana. It deserves a good name?

   During its growth as a significant work of art, the live performances of "East West" are part of what solidifies the Butterfield Blues Band as a group that
listeners must experience live. I have one live recording where Butterfield announces that they are going to "close out the set" with "East West", and there is thunderous applause. When the band performs it at The Fillmore, there is a light show behind the band (see blog #17), and sometimes, Bloomfield eats fire as part of the stage performance. Like good bop jazz, each performance is different, with improvisations that can stretch from thirty to sixty minutes. As jazz musician Wynton Marsalis says, when he describes great music, "Sustain intensity equals ecstasy", I think "East West" fits into that description beautifully.

    In the mid-sixties, no other rock band of the era is doing anything like it, consequently, "East West" sets many benchmarks for all other bands of the period.  The era of the long, sometimes overly indulgent guitar solos, by bands like The Grateful Dead, The Allman Brothers and many more, probably originates with the success of "East West". Some critics even credit Miles Davis' fusion of Electric Jazz with rock in 1968 to "East West" as he was a fan of Bloomfield's work.

   Most often, the attention given to "East West" is focused on its creation, Bloomfield's guitar work, and the individual performances, but Butterfield's contributions to the song always seems to remain a footnote. Keep in mind that Butterfield is essentially a blues harmonica player at this point, and so his solo is unique. When I listen to his contributions on "East West", I feel like he is almost out of his element, forced into stretching his abilities, but he succeeds in face of the challenge. I can not think of a single harmonica player in blues, or for that matter, in jazz, who is performing solos like he is at this time.

   Many of the baby boomers who listen to "East West" in the sixties are now within reach of senior citizen status, most of whom will probably only visit the instrumental for nostalgia's sake. Guitarists are still fascinated with it, and good historians recognize its importance, but for the mainstream, the ecstasy of "East West" is a forgotten experience.

   For a few reasons, I have intentionally chosen to post the studio version of "East West" below. When writing this post I made the assumption that many readers have not heard the song. This may also explain the rather thin background history I provide at the beginning.

    In addition, some of the bootleg versions including the Naftalin collection, East West Live lack solid sound quality. Also, with consideration to listening with modern ears, sometimes the guitar solos can present themselves as a little too self-indulgent. So, with these considerations in mind, I think it a good idea to make the first listening experience as positive as possible. If you want to hear some of the other live performances of "East West", either buy East West Live on Winner Records, or listen to some bootleg copies on YouTube.

Paul Butterfield: harmonica, Billy Davenport: drums, Jerome Arnold: bass, Mike Bloomfield: guitar and Elvin Bishop: guitar, Mark Naftalin: keyboards.


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