Monday, August 4, 2014

# 53 Paul Butterfield's Better Days in the Steelyard Blues

    It isn't always a popular notion, but musicians who try to make a living selling their work are very similar to small businesses. They need to constantly produce new product, and then promote if they hope to survive. Even then, they need a well connected manager, and an established record label willing to distribute their product to have a chance at a successful career.

    Most of a musician's income comes from live performances, (very few can just rely on recorded music), so the need for incessant travel paramount.  The dynamic of the young, talented troubadour traveling the world is often romanticized in the entertainment media, but there is an element which is consciously omitted from this story. When an artist is no longer young, and the novelty of life on the road has worn off; the lifestyle of the road is less hospitable, and turns into an emotionally taxing grind.

   When the Butterfield Blues Band ends in '71, it is the end of an era in popular music, and potentially the end of Paul Butterfield's career as a musician, and bandleader. The critics are generally kind toward his seven albums, as well as his hundreds of live performances. The news of the demise of his band cause many critics speculate on the causes with full articles in national trades,  Butterfield started out (at least record wise) with the licks down pat, the emotional sympathy and perfect fodder for artistic growth.  But to his inevitable commercial defeat, he lacked the aforementioned proclivity for the machinations of rock stardom.  Others say things like There’s a certain excitement only Paul Butterfield’s Blues Band can create. It’s a foot-stomping, hand clapping type of excitement that is generated from the wails of the three saxophones, the pounding drums, the screech of electric guitars.....the Elektra artists held their audience in a very tight, polished performance....  The New York Times says: Paul Butterfield is today the creator of a new idiom, and Rock impresarioBill Graham refers to the band as the house band  for his Fillmore venues. However, by 'the end of '71 all of these accolades from the industries most influential voices are fading.

   The death of his big band must bring psychological release for Butterfield though, at least he doesn't have to answer the silly questions from interviewers about why his band is called a blues band anymore. He also doesn't need to act as the leader of one of the biggest, influential Rock bands on the touring circuit, or worry about meeting the demands for a hit record from Elektra. The pressure of being a leader in the popular culture of a generation, let alone an innovator, must be emotionally exhausting.

    By the end of '71, Butterfield isn't touring much, and instead is growing domestic roots in WoodstockN.Y.. Some historians compare the rural musician's colony to the Quartier Latin in Paris during the early 20th century. In the '60's and '70's, the little town is home to many of the greatest artists of the '60's generation. Nestled just outside Woodstock, off route 212, Butterfield has a young family, two horses, two dogs, and a house on a ten acre spread. He counts Van Morrisonthe Band, and Bob Dylan and many other influential artists as his friends and neighbours.  Maria Muldaur remembers those days, .... we'd go over to Paul's house -- Kathy was pregnant with Lee at the time -- and we'd have dinner and sit around the piano and sing and jam; Paul and Geoffrey would mostly be playing tunes and exchanging ideas. At a certain point Kathy would have to go up to bed, and we'd be jamming away. But after she got upstairs she'd lower this little microphone through a grate in the ceiling and she'd turn a mic on and be recording us! The creative juices would be flowing far out to the night. Butterfield is closing in on his thirtieth birthday, and he has spent the past six years on the road, so the domestic lifestyle is new to him, and seductive.

    Professionally, his career as a creative force is established, and temporarily secure. He has a new recording contract with his very well connected manager Albert Grossman, and owner of the new label, Bearsville Records. In addition, Grossman has opened up a recording studio which which also provides him with plenty of studio work. There are also several local venues like Cafe Expresso which provide all the local musicians with opportunities to socialize, try new ideas, and keep their chops in good shape. The Woodstock music community has become a world insulated from the reality of being a working musician. There are all the material trappings of success within a small area, but they all need to leave the colony at some point to pay for the lifestyle.

    Butterfield still wants to write, record and perform music, but he is getting tired of the demands associated with his career, and just wants the freedom to act on his own schedule. He wants a new band, but doesn't want to repeat the experiences of the big band, so he consciously thinks of ways to make his new band different from his previous groups. As Geoff Muldaur recalls,  That band had gotten bigger and crazier, and it was capable of generating some tremendous grooves, but I think after it ended Paul was looking for something very different. The big bands he leads in the past are an impressive creative force, but they required a lot of leadership. Keep in mind that it is a unique skill to be a bandleader. As the leader you are not only a contributor to the music, but you are the driving force, the representative to the industry, and your fan base. A good bandleader needs to be one of us and one of them.

   Similar to ButterfieldGeoff & Maria  Muldaur are without a band. Their marriage is over, and so is their professional union. As Maria recalls, At that time we -- Paul, Geoff and me -- were all basically unemployed and not involved in any sort of project,.... My recollection is that Paul and Geoff and I were all hanging out at Deanie's. Albert may have been there too. And we all just decided to put a band together. If Grossman wasn't there, he was quick to give the project his blessing. As the project takes shape, Butterfield's role as the sole leader and instead, the three have many discussions about material, potential musicians, and musical directions. They decide that the new Butterfield sound will be a less urban sound, and more reflective of the current rural environment.

   So, the process of building a new Butterfield Band begins with Butterfield, Maria and Geoff Muldaur, and then a search for a drummer (Butterfield has an obsession with strong drummers and especially the foot). After a few weeks, and many visits to local bars, he asks Christopher Parker to become the band's drummer. Nineteen year old Parker is a Woodstock drummer who acts as a hired gun for many of the local Rock, Gospel, Blues,and Jazz, bands. His willingness and ability to adapt to any musical situation is an important factor in his selection for the position. Butterfield recognizes the significance of a strong drummer, but in the '70's, a guitarist is essential.

   In the popular music of the 60's and into the '70's, it is important for all bands to showcase a guitar stylist with the ability to solo. Amos Garrett, is actually a native of Detroit, but learns to play while growing up in Canada. He is a Canadian citizen, and earns his chops touring with various bands in the Windsor to Quebec City corridor before landing a job with the Canadian folk duo Ian and Sylvia (managed by Grossman). Garrett is definitely a stylist. He has a well developed string bending technique that distinguishes him from every other guitarist in the industry, and creates very tasteful solos.

    Another Canadian living in Woodstock is a close friend, and neighbor of Butterfield's. Rick Danko's lyrical bass lines, and emotive voice will be an excellent addition to the new sound, but the timing is not good because of his responsibilities to the Band, so his tenure is brief. As the pressures for Butterfield to take a new band on the road grow he hires San Francisco bassist John Kahn who has be working on coast with Bloomfield, Naftalin and Jerry Garcia to complete the rhythm section.

   To fill out the front line of the new Butter band, West Coast organist Merle Saunders is asked to join the band. Saunders will be an important component of the new sound. Butterfield is attracted to the sounds of cross-over artist Jimmy Smith, so Saunders is a real coup. As Parker recalls,  Paul wanted that B-3 jazz sound with Merle, like Jimmy Smith, under solos. And Kahn was totally into Ray Brown and Milt Hinton and could lay that big fat sound on the bottom.  So, in the summer of '72, the first configuration of Paul Butterfield's Better Days start working the concert circuit throughout the U.S. with the goal of refining the new sound, and planning a first album.

   While on the West Coast most of the new band (Geoff Muldaur is excluded) go into the studio in L.A. to record the soundtrack for the recent counter culture film starring Jane Fonda and Donald Sutherland (another Canadian) Steelyard Blues. All the songs are Bloomfield/ Gravenites compositions with Gravenites doubling as producer. Notice that Butterfield's name is important enough that it appears in large print on the front cover of the album. He only has one song to sing  Here I Come (There She Goes), but adds his harmonica to every track. The film is now quite dated, and most of the songwriting is not timeless, but Butterfield's harmonica is still considered some of his best work.

   It is an excellent, and lucrative beginning for Butterfield's new band, but after a summer of tours and recording, both Kahn and Saunders have had enough of life on the road, and to return to San Francisco. A disappointing development for Butterfield, but he needs to be working, and so returns to Woodstock to regroup. He knows that if he doesn't continue, he risks losing everything he has build in Woodstock, and there is always competition for his job.

    Artists must remain current, and continuously produce new product, or they run the very real risk of being forgotten. By '71, there are many singer/harmonica players recording, and touring, all of them working toward achieving the same success Butterfield temporarily owns. Charlie Musselwhite is recording and working the West Coast, Taj Mahal is releasing his fifth album, Boston's J. Geils Band is showcasing the heavily amplified sounds of Magic Dick, on the lickin' stick, and up in CanadaRichard Newell a.k.a. The King Biscuit Boy has left Ronnie Hawkins' band to front a loud blues/rock band called Crowbar. All of them are working toward achieving the same position Butterfield is currently enjoying.