Monday, March 31, 2014

# 43 Live at the Troubadour

    By 1970, the Butterfield Blues Band's album sales have stagnated, and the income from live shows is stalling too. Butterfield doesn't seem to care though, he just wants to play music. However, the situation is causing Elektra, and Albert Grossman some frustration. At this point, they can't seem to figure why their client Paul Butterfield isn't more successful.

    He's good songwriter, but none of his songs seem to capture the imagination of the mainstream market, and in the golden age of singer/songwriters his catalog is comparatively small. As a vocalist, he is a convincing interpreter of Blues, but this skill doesn't seem to transfer over when he performs crossover material.

    Butterfield has what musicians often refer to as  big ears, and he also demonstrates a sharp ear for talent. Similar to all great leaders, he has the ability to surround himself with people more skilled than himself, and can lead them in a direction of his choosing. It is this skill that should earn him the title of one of the great bandleaders of the twentieth century. A combination of his talent, skill, and a moderate yet devoted fan base (mostly male) have already entrenched Butterfield in the history books.  However, in spite of all the things Paul Butterfield has going in his favor; by 1970, the end of his critically acclaimed big band the Butterfield Blues Band is closer than he realizes. It is an unfortunate reality for all performers, you can have all the talent in the world, but if it doesn't transmit into money, your career is at risk.

    There is one talent that Paul Butterfield owns which is unique and sets him apart from most other artists. It's a talent which places him in the company of all of the musicians throughout history, regardless of genre, who are labeled genius. His gift is the emotional energy he generates with a little two dollar, diatonic harmonica. The inexpensive little instrument played by millions of people around the world is heard in almost every genre of music. For example, you will find harmonica solos featured in Classical music, but you will not discover many oboe solos in Rock. This kind of profile should give the instrument a lot respect, but for some reason it doesn't. Throughout the decades most people still seem to think of the harmonica as a just a toy, and consequently not worthy of serious consideration. However, those same people will marvel at the sounds it produces, and often openly lament I wish I could play like that.

    Even if you are not a fan of the harmonica, or know nothing about Butterfield's prowess as a master of the instrument, there is a simple test you can perform. Scan photos or films of Butterfield playing in front of a live audience, and then pay attention to the expressions on the faces of his audience. Most times his audience members seem transfixed by the sounds he is producing.

    It not just his technique (he is a lip purser), or that he plays the harmonica upside down (he is left handed); it's the way he approaches the instrument. He produces a very full, round tone, most often using a heavy vibrato which he then uses to weave in and out of melodies as no other harmonica player does. Anyone can learn his physical technique, but to use it as he does, is a unique gift. The sound Butterfield chisels from his instrument is what causes people to feel , ...we hear Paul Butterfield saying all that one man, could ever say to another man, his only voice the voice of his harmonica. His label Elektra Records, understands this reality, and that is why when you look at the cover photo of his new album Live, the image is of Paul Butterfield, on a stage, drenched in sweat, a man who is expressing his most inner emotions through a little two dollar harmonica - better than any man alive.

    The set list for the 1970 double album, as well as the expanded 2004 Compact Disc of Live is typical of the band's concerts. Most of the performances are excellent, although they do seem tighter next to several bootleg recordings. However, most fans of the Butter Band often point to exceptional highlights on this album. It might be Rod Hick's bass groove on Love Disease or George Davidson's lyrical drum solo on The Boxer, (Detroit's Davidson is recruited by Hick's from the Four Tops), or the blistering speed of Butterfield's solo on Number Nine. (The only other Butterfield contemporary who can play at this speed is Nashville studio musician Charlie McCoy).  However, almost everyone is hypnotized by his harmonica in Everything's Gonna Be Alright. It's just a straight 12 bar blues in G, played over a downtown shuffle, but every note, every phrase he speaks through his harmonica is confident, tasteful, and feels spontaneous.

    Similar to all great musicians, Butterfield's style impresses technicians, and listeners alike. He only uses the five notes of the minor pentatonic scale (six if you include the flat five), and he rarely ventures past the six hole blow, but he plays triplet phrases which deceive the listener to believing he somehow has more notes than are actually available.

    So, why is Butterfield's audience leaving him then? It can't be the addition of 19 year old guitarist from San FranciscoRalph Wash. He isn't as dynamic as Buzzy Feiten or Mike Bloomfield, but he is a favorite of B.B. King, and plays a meaty rhythmic style similar to Elvin Bishop's, only with more finesse.

    It could be the speculation that some critics express after the release of In My Own Dream.  They conclude that Butterfield is playing too much Jazz which young people consider suspect because of its affiliation with the over thirty generation. However, New York's Blood Sweat and Tears, Toronto's Lighthouse, Chicago's Chicago Transit Authority, and New York's Dreams are all doing well in the Jazz Rock idiom, and nobody questions their use of Jazz. Then there is the argument that Butterfield's voice doesn't seem to resonate with mainstream audiences because he is over-matched by his horn section, but on Live, his voice is never over shadowed by any instrument in his band. As producer Todd Rundgren says, This is probably the time when Paul is most challenged by the musicians he's gathered around him, proving his ability to throw down with the best there is, anytime, anyplace. 

    In the Rock press there are even more complementary observations about the album, Rolling Stone reports, This album is perhaps Butterfield’s most rewarding since Born in Chicago. The horns don't  get in the way at all, and Paul’s voice and harp never sounded better. However, none the accolades help to explain shrinking audience.

   The answer to the question might be simple. It could be that Butterfield is no longer in charge of his band, or the music for that matter. After the scathing press he receives for his inexperienced leadership skills while leading the Paul Butterfield Blues Band, he consistently is shying away from the role as the leader. Since In My Own Dream, he is trying to run a more egalitarian workplace, but by the time of Live, he has pretty much handed over the reins of power to Dinwiddie. As David Sanborn says, Gene was the father figure to us all, ten years older, who had been around in Chicago, and knew the bebop vocabulary. He was the most evolved player, harmonically, until Ted came on the scene. But he was the person everyone deferred to. He pulled the charts together and directed the harmonics of the band - Paul didn't read music that well. and by 1970, the band was playing some very involved charts and wonderful arrangements. It could be that Paul Butterfield the egalitarian bandleader doesn't project himself through the music the way he does when he lead his earlier bands, and audiences intuitively understand this reality.

    Regardless of speculation about why or how how Butterfield's audience is continuing to turn away from his music, this new album Live never sounds dated. Compared with all the other horn bands mentioned above, this is a unique collection of tunes still sounds fresh. You can probably put Live on a turntable in any decade, and most people will not identify it as music from the '60's.

   In terms of the harmonica work on the album; even a generation of young innovative players will point to this album as a benchmark to strive toward.  There is no other album that better captures the technical mastery, or visceral energy that lead people to think Paul Butterfield is saying all that one man, could ever say to another man, his only voice the voice of his harmonica.

Butterfield Blues Band: Live,  Recorded at The Troubadour in Los Angeles over March  21st and 22nd 1970 and released December 1970  #72 on the album charts.

1) Everything’s Gonna Be Alright, 2) Love Disease , 3) The Boxer, 4) No Amount Of Lovin’, 5) Driftin’ and Driftin’, 6) Introductions on musicians, 7) Number Nine, 8) I Just Want To Be With You, 9) Born Under a Bad Sign , 10) Get Together Again, 11) So Far, So Good.

In 2004 a second disc of performances on those nights is released:

1) Gene's Tune, 2) Nobody's Fault But Mine, 4) Losing Hand, 5) All In A Day, 6) Feel So Bad, 7) Except You, 8) You've Got to Love Her With a Feelin', 9) Love March.

Paul Butterfield: Vocals, Harmonica, (Piano on Get Together Again), Rod Hicks: Bass, (Vocal on
The Boxer),  Ted Harris: Piano, Ralph Wash: Guitar, Gene Dinwiddie: Tenor and Baritone
Saxophone, Steve Madaio: Trumpet, George Davidson: Drums, Trevor Lawrence: Baritone Saxophone. David Sanborn is still in the band, but does do this tour or this recording.
Produced by Todd Rundgren and Ray Thompson.


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