Friday, February 21, 2014

# 32 Butterfield & Hendrix, Voodoo Childe

    The release of the Paul Butterfield Blues Band does much more than just popularize post-war electric Chicago Blues; it generates a measurable social change in a large group of young people who are eager to play the music.

    If the band's convincing studio interpretations of electric blues are ground breaking, then their live shows are even more important. The underlying message Butterfield seems to send to fans is I was an outsider, I infiltrated the musical culture of the South Side, learned the nuances of its music, and I can now perform it with the authority of a native. It's an implicit boast which is not new, it has been done before, just not during Butterfield's generation.

    Similar to the Paul Butterfield Blues Band, the second album East West, inspires even more significant changes in popular music. After this album, even more Blues-Rock bands grow out of suburban garages and basements, sporting electric harmonica and guitar, and earning the tough urban blues of Chicago a larger audience. There are other successful Blues-Rock bands working during this period, but it is the Butterfield band that sets a new standard of musicianship. This standard is just part of a series of subtle changes the band will create in the mid-sixties, many of which are still being heard today. (In the sixties, Butterfield does for the Hohner Marine Band what Little Walter does for the harmonica in the fifties, his popularity actually causes the sale, and price of the instrument to rise.)

    Similar to his band leader, Mike Bloomfield's performances also offer hope to young musicians eager to attain credibility in Blues-Rock. He channels his creative, almost manic, energy through his guitar, and it pours out of his amplifier with as much credibility as any of the great Chicago bluesmen. Many who witness his live performances are so moved by his playing that they announce, He doesn't play the guitar, he is the guitar!

     Not only does Bloomfield showcase a mastery of his instrument, and the genre; he also improvises with a visceral ease that only jazz players accomplish. As a result, millions of fans select him to be their teacher, hero, and leader. Decades after his after his guitar sits silent, fans are still listening, and talking about the great guitarist Mike Bloomfield.

    Sadly, the history books regularly point to the Grateful Dead as the original Jam Band, but this is statement is the product of shallow research. In a general sense, it is the Butterfield band who is the true owner of the title. It is their improvisations inside songs such as East West, and Work Song that inspire so many groups to seek out skilled stylists who can also improvise. Among the many Guitar Slingers appearing in front of bands are Eric Clapton, Carlos Santana, Robbie Robertson, Jerry Garcia, and Duane Allman. They all owe so much to both the Butterfield Blues Band, and especially Mike Bloomfield. At the time, it must be difficult to imagine anyone will be able to influence the direction of Rock more than them.

   Then Jimi Hendrix arrives. The relatively new genre of Blues Rock, and its fans are always open to new experiences, and Hendrix delivers. He takes the music, and its star instrument into areas never before contemplated.

     Hendrix is an American who pays his dues playing the Chitlin' Circuit with the Isley Brothers, and Little Richard.  Then he moves to England, where he is discovered by musician/manager Chas Chandler. After Hendrix enjoys three massive hits over there, his management signals him to prepare for the lucrative American market. So, in 1967, Jimi Hendrix arrives home, plays the Monterey Pop Festival, and is awarded the status of Rock Star by the media. Then fans solidify his position by making his album Electric Ladyland number one on the national charts.

    Hendrix's style is unique because he plugs his Fender Stratocaster into very large over driven amps with recklessly high volume and gain. He also uses wah-wah pedals, stereophonic phasing and any other electronic tools available to him. In addition, he masters the sonic liability known as feedback, incorporates it into his playing, and then implicitly challenges all rock guitarist follow his lead. The basis for Hendrix's unique style seems to be that he doesn't approach the guitar with a traditional vision; rather, he views his instrument as just another electronic sound source.

    In addition to his playing, Hendrix is also a flamboyant stage performer too. He often wears garish costumes on stage, plays his guitar in unusual positions, and performs sexually suggestive acts with it on stage. He even smashes his instrument during some performances, and sometimes pours lighter fluid on it before setting it ablaze in front of the hypnotized audience. (He may have borrowed this idea from Little Richard as it is rumored that he lights his piano on fire while touring in the fifties, as does Jerry Lee Lewis, but this could be legend.) By '68, Jimi Hendrix is the most famous Rock guitarist alive. Like Bloomfield, the changes he ignites are still be heard today.

     There are several live recordings of Paul Butterfield and Jimi Hendrix available. Hendrix's family has wisely been very diligent in their pursuit of the rights to most of his recordings: Jimi HendrixPaul ButterfieldAl Kooper, Elvin Bishop, Philip Wilson, and Buddy Miles jamming on Voodoo Childe at the Generation Club in New York, 1968.


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