Sunday, June 14, 2015

# 56 Paul Butterfield' s Better Days

    Most successful artists will confide that reaching the top seems like the easy part; it's holding on your place that is the greater challenge.  As Van Morrison laments in Back on Top,... You'll find out when you get to the top/ That there's nowhere to go.  This of course is not true, once you get to the top, you can quickly slide back to the bottom, often in less time than it takes you to reach your goal.

   Butterfield is similar to most of the stars of '60's Blues/Rock, he makes his share of the sacrifices to reach the top.  Between 1964 and 1972,  he travels a long precarious road from university drop out headlining at the tiny club Big John's on Chicago's Near North Side, to the position of the most successful blues singer of his generation.  He is actually a major contributor to this new trend, and consequently, there isn't a shortage of  young musicians willing, and able to nudge him from his throne.

   Looking back at his accomplishments with The Paul Butterfield Blues Band, and then the Butterfield Blues Band, he knows his contributions are recorded in the history books, and for that he has the respect of his industry peers. In addition, the rewards of his success have bought him all the material trappings of the American Dream.  He has a family, a comfortable house on several acres off Route 212, replete with horses and dogs. At 30 years of age, Paul Butterfield has everything that an average man will work his whole life to achieve. 

    He earns those accolades and rewards by recording seven critically acclaimed albums, living a grinding cycle of preparation, rehearsals, recording, incessant touring, promotional interviews, replacing band members, and at times, struggling to maintain a creative freshness for his growing fanbase.  

    But by the end 1971, approaching 30 years of age, he finds himself without an established band, the perks and security of his multinational label Elektra are gone, and the musical tastes of the record buying public is rapidly changing. All of this serves as the backdrop for his next album, Better Days. For Butterfield, his biggest challenge will be to capitalize on his past successes, and yet produce a new product which will prove to the industry, as well as fans, that he is still a creative force. As American composer/lyricist Irving Berlin noted at the height of his own success: The toughest thing about being a success is that you have to keep on being a success.

    However, he is still driven to create and as always quite resourceful. He has assembled a new band of highly skilled musicians, and is working with Geoff Muldaur to prepare a set list of material which will distance him from his past, and yet advertize his ability to adapt to new directions. After several obstacles, by late '72, his band, Better Days, is in Bearsville Studios recording the first album of his renewed career.

   When you hold the first Paul Butterfield's Better Days album in your hands, you can sense that something has changed.  Firstly, the packaging is different. Gone are the photos of his band with defiant stance, or a psychedelic collage; instead we have a simple, yet imposing photograph of an artifact. When you open up the cover and hold the whole thing in front you see a beautiful 1923 Hohner Trumpet Call replete with solid brass cover plates which boast intricate high-relief designs of cherubs, and trumpets; it isn't just another harmonica, but a work of art. It is definitely the quality a fan would expect an artist of Butterfield's caliber would own. (This is Butterfield's harp, but he doesn't use it on the album.) 

   Then, you notice, there is no photo of the band, nor is there the familiar logo the Butterfield Blues Band which is owned by his former label. There is only a list of the member's names, printed in the same moderate font size, indicating it is not an artist and his band, but rather, a band of artists working together. When you open up the cover, it is both simple and dramatic with solid white song titles over a black background, all of which jumps right out at you. (photographed by his wife Katherine)

   When you reach in to retrieve the album, there is another surprise. It's a 12" by 24" pull out with photos of the band relaxing, and their brief biographies. Then you flip it over and it's like a personal gift from Butterfield to his fans, he has given you a huge poster of his antique harmonica. The whole package is simple, attractive, and different. (This poster will be framed or laminated, and proudly displayed on walls of apartment living rooms, and bedrooms everywhere! It even appears on the cover of Bobby Charles' album Wish You Were Here Right Now.)

    Then there is the music, it's noticeably different too. Even the title of the first track is changed to reflect a new approach to a song Butterfield covers back in edgier days. He is calling it New Walkin' Blues now, and it sounds like nothing any other bluesman has ever done with the song. He is using the softer sounds of an electric piano leading the listener into a medium tempo groove, Robert Johnson would be impressed.

   There is none of the testosterone driven music of the Paul Butterfield Blues Band or the Butterfield Blues Band on Better Days. This is a different band, with a unique vision of old and new music.  It's a calculated mix of rural blues next to more cosmopolitan urban blues of Percy Mayfield,  then traditional folk, gospel, and New Orleans R. & B.. As Geoff Muldaur says, We're the only band around that's playing rooted American music. In 1972 this Roots music is a fairly new sub-genre of popular music, and while Better Days may not be the first band to enter into the new genre, they are definitely pioneers in the music.

    However, many of the Blues/Rock stars of the '60's are starting to plateau, and the album doesn't sell that well in the mainstream market. The critics are generally kind, but even the infectious groove of New Walkin' Blues, and the cathartic Please Send Me Someone to Love as the single, will not help to push the album beyond #145 on the charts.

    The cause of the mediocre sales is difficult to reveal. It could be as simple as the fact the album is released in January of 1973, missing the important Christmas shopping market, or it's competing with The Allman Brothers Ramblin' Man, Jim Croce's Bad, Bad Leroy Brown or Edgar Winter's Frankenstein.  One critic concludes it is because there are three main vocalist in the band, taking the focus away Butterfield. Some even think it's because none of principal singers project the kind of sex appeal that a Greg Allman, Mick Jagger or Rod Stewart do. 

    America's premier popular culture newspaper Rolling Stone thinks the problem is more psychological,  Unlike Van Morrison, for instance, Butterfield always conceived of the blues as a tradition, not a sensibility. Even after he disbanded the Blues Band and formed Better Days, he never projected himself, never conveyed a sense of who he was or what he wanted to say. While both albums boast a formal imagination, they lack a personal one.... . But this diagnosis lacks insight and only serves to expose someone who is only moderately familiar with Roots Music.

     While it is true that Butterfield never projects the sex appeal of say a Mick Jagger or Rod Stewart, it doesn't mean he does not project himself through his music. No one accuses Bob Dylan of the same artistic crime. One only needs to look at the set list of Better Days to glimpse inside the mind, and life of Paul Butterfield.

    Most pop song lyrics directed at the important 18 to 24 market are intentionally ambiguous (many songwriters, like Bob Dylan, Van Morrison, and Mick Jagger write down several song ideas, and then set about the task of piecing them together in an effort to create a theme.) This process works to the benefit of both the writer, and the listener because the listener can create their own meaning from the lyrics. This is why so many songwriters do not want to provide specifics on the meaning of their lyrics, they risk limiting their meaning, and potentially losing fans in the process. However, this is usually not a problem with most blues, which is, with the exception of the double-entendre, self explanatory.

    Superficially, a critic can argue that the set list of Better Days is too rich in the very adult emotions of brooding guilt, regret, self-awareness, self doubt, depression, reconciliation as well as contentment and joy. If you use these songs to sketch a personal profile of Paul Butterfield, it is of a 30 year old man who is troubled, lonely, guilty of adultery, buried in his own blues; a man who is pulling off of the road to success, realizing that he can never rule it. There does seem to be some truth to this interpretation, as it is around this period that Butterfield's personal, and professional life start to spiral downward, but it is unlikely that this is the intention of the song choice. Contrary to what many people believe, songs in general, and Blues specifically, are intended to act as a catharsis for the listener, not an instigator of negative emotion. So, does Paul Butterfield project himself through his music? The answer to the question is the same as for any artist, yes, but it is a subjective yes.  

   Overall, the general reception of Butterfield's new album Better Days is positive. There are people who call the album wooden, too slow, sleepy, music for the wine and reds set, but others refer to it as passionate, exciting. Billboard says, Most assuredly the blues with which Butterfield has become associated with over the years, the arrangement and vocals are more commercially oriented than anything he has ever done. The Band is extremely tight, and Butterfield's vocals are smooth while still conveying the blues. The music on Better Days is definitely a departure for Butterfield, and his fans. The more reflective, relaxed, rural mood, is both a reflection of his personal life, and the tone of the maturing Woodstock generation.

   Historically, there are some other things about the music of this album which are unique to American popular music in the 70's, and unique to Butterfield's music. Better Days can be seen as one of the first bands to actively tour playing  Roots Music, or as we call it today, Americana. Also, the musicianship is timeless, as one critic raves that Amos Garrett's guitar solo on Please Send Me Someone to Love, .... belongs on the top ten list of of top guitar solos of ALL time.  Gone is the prominent role of the horn section, as is his role as the lead singer. Butterfield only sings lead on three of the nine songs. This is also the first time he is using string arrangements, (Done A Lot of Wrong Things), and for the first time he, along with Geoff Muldaur, is the producer.

     There is another little known fact about this particular Better Days album. In 1973, it is one of those albums which makes its way into the record collections of people who are not  Blues fans. It can be found mixed in with albums by Yes, Pink Floyd, or Alice Cooper. It may seem like a minor success, but it is a success none the less. In the end, perhaps Paul Butterfield's Better Days first album's greatest accomplishment is that it's music still sounds fresh almost 42 years after its release.

   The true measure of the success of an artist's music can never be completely known at the time of creation, it needs time to grow an audience. The answer to the question is often discovered decades after the fact when people are still enjoying it.  In the case of Paul Butterfield's Better Days, the answer is a resounding yes. People still buy and enjoy the band's music, it is often cited as one of forgotten gems of the '70's, and critics still rave about the musicianship of the band; these must be some of the greatest compliments an artist can receive.

Paul Butterfield's Better Days, Better Days , Bearsville BR-2119, January 1973
New Walkin’ Blues, Please Send Me Someone To Love, Broke My Baby’s Heart, Done A Lot Of  Wrong Things, Baby Please Don’t Go, Buried Alive In The Blues, Rule The RoadNobody’s Fault But Mine, Highway 28.

Paul Butterfield, vocal, harp, (electric piano on  New Walkin’ Blues, Done A Lot Of Wrong Things),
Ronnie Barron, organ and piano, (vocal on Broke My Baby’s Heart),
Amos Garrett, guitar, slide guitar, acoustic guitar, bass, vocal on Rule The Road, Geoff Muldaur, slide guitar, piano, electric piano, acoustic guitar, guitar, vibes, (vocal on Please Send Me Someone To Love, Done A Lot Of Wrong Things, Baby Please Don’t Go, Buried Alive In The Blues, Rule The Road, Nobody’s Fault But Mine, Highway 28, Arranged Strings on Done A Lot Of Wrong Things,
Christopher Parker, drums,
Billy Rich, bass,
Howard Johnson, baritone sax, horn arranger on Please Send Me Someone To Love, and Broke My Baby’s Heart,
Peter Ecklund, trumpet,
Sam Burtis, trombone,
Gene Dinwiddie, tenor sax,
David Sanborn, alto sax,
Stan Shafran, trumpet,
J.D. Parran, tenor sax,
Gary Brocks, trombone,
Background vocals, Paul Butterfield, Geoff Muldaur, Maria Muldaur, Amos Garrett, Bobby Charles, Dennis Whitted, Ronnie Barron.

Produced by: Paul Butterfield and Geoff Muldaur, Engineered by: Nick Jameson, Recorded and mixed at Bearsville Studios in Bearsville, New York,
Black and white photography by: Katherine Butterfield,

Cover Design by: Milton Gaser, Push Pin Studios.


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