Sunday, August 14, 2016

# 57 It All Comes Back for Paul Butterfield

One of Paul Butterfield's admirers, Van Morrison, summarized success best in the title track of his 1999 album Back On Top, What do you do when get to the top, and there's nowhere to go? It's a question most stars do not confront until the arrive, and often suffer as a result. This question must chip away at Butterfield's psyche in the early 70s. Still in his early 30s, he accomplishes more than any other blues singer before him, and now after nine years he running out of new ideas. It isn't a healthy place for a trailblazing artist to live. As Robert Browning says,  Ah, but a man's reach should exceed his grasp/ Or what's a heaven for?  So, what does Butterfield do? The short answer is, he creates great music, but that's all he does.   

In retrospect, it is the success of the title track from the Butterfield Blues band's East/West that thrusts a career predicated on adventurous experimentation, innovation, and an opportunity to become a creative force on Butterfield. After East/West, he is no longer a traditional bluesman, but a major contributor to the soundtrack of a cultural movement. Lesser artists will shy away from such a challenges, but he is young, intelligent, talented, and ambitious - the right stuff for someone climbing to the top.

All of the music that Butterfield creates from '65 to '71 is a tasteful testosterone fueled mosaic of yeasty Americana, but by '72 his attempts at grasping beyond his reach are over.  So, when he forms Better Days, it is almost an artistic surrender. Paul Butterfield's Better Days creates some of the best roots music of the 70s, but in comparison with earlier Butterfield projects, it is thin. There is little of his former adventurous spirit, and only frail attempts at innovation. As much as this writer loves both Better Days albums, it is wiser to forget about the projects by the younger, more driven artist, and accept his work for what it is, a carefully crafted retirement project.

The karmic title track of  It All Comes Back inadvertently summarizes his past, present and future: You got yours, I got mine./ You feel bad and I feel fine /It all comes back.  Butterfield tells one interviewer in 1973, It's our band, not my band.... The one note symphony concept is what I am into now. and the music does seem to reflect this attitude, but he is hiding something behind these words. Similar to many great leaders Butterfield is a cautious decision maker, frequently reluctant to accept new ideas, but wise enough to submit after deep contemplation. So, while he is happy to have you believe the process of creating tasteful music within the traditional and contemporary blues setting is an egalitarian process, the end product is all Paul Butterfield. It is one of the qualities that got Butterfield to the top.

Similar to its earlier companion, Better Days, the material on  It All Comes Back reflects Butterfield's recent adoption of a more pastoral lifestyle in Woodstock. He says, So many bands  take a good idea and add five great ideas to it. By the time they've added all five great ideas , they've negated  the total product. The result is too confusing, too undirected to make any musical sense. All I'm trying to do is say something to move the heart. Music totally honest, real music - it's the only way I know to do that. There are things I want to say, not in an ego trip sense, that I couldn't say any other way. There is no other way for me to express what's in my heart. One of the keys to Butterfield's success as an artist is his ability to lead his musicians in the direction of his choosing, so, when you hear the songs on this album it is a product of his vision.

Another important quality about his leadership skills is his distinctive ability to surround himself with masterful musicians, and as with his previous album, he proves his leadership mettle. Each member is a unique talent in their own right, from Amos Garrett's world class guitar styling, to Geoff Muldaur's reedy, quavering, otherworldly vocal style, and Ronnie Barron's soulful New Orleans R&B sensibility. Even Howard Johnson's horn arrangements, Nick Jameson's progressive engineering talents, and of course Bobby Charles' songwriting talents are careful additions to the new Butterfield sound. It is another accolade he earns during his career, the ability to create a supergroups with super musicians.

Generally speaking critics and fans alike love the new band, and while album sales demand incessant cross country tours, he is commanding good money, and acclaim for his efforts. It isn't unusual to read encouraging reviews in many of the trades of the day, They are the most imaginative blues band around and Paul Butterfield's Better Days are some of our most imaginative  dynamic musicians. This album could be that first big step up - it's that good. When are people gonna get wise? Most of the early reviews of their live shows are as positive or better, They just tore the place apart, especially with Walkin Blues.  But Butterfield has been down this road before, he is growing weary of life on the road, and beginning to take his position for granted.

However, there are some important voices who are not as enamoured with It All Comes Back. Let's acknowledge some of the more high profile opinions first. Geoff Muldaur didn't consider this collection of songs as good as the first Better Days album, we made one good album, he told an interviewer. Another critic leveled the same lament at It All Comes Back that he did for Better Days, referring to the music as wooden.  Then there is the opinion of one of the higher profile music trades of the 60s and 70s, Rolling Stone who say, 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. Most criticisms of all art should be taken for what they are though, a single opinion, often lacking the benefit of reflection. In the end we all need to develop our own opinions.

So what makes It All Comes Back special? If you are reading this piece, we can assume that you
have listened to the album more than once, and probably have a definite opinion, so a track by track expose is not necessary. In this writer's opinion the album's greatest weakness is also its great strength.  While it's musical scope is diverse, and it nods at several genres, all of them tastefully arranged, produced and performed, it can sound scattered.

It is important to know that Butterfield always produces music which is a statement of where he is in his life at a given time, and It All Comes Back is not an exception. Each track reveals something about his life in Woodstock during the 70s. Take notice of Mose Allison's nihilist If You Live, or clavinet funk driven nod to hedonism in Take Your Pleasure Where You Find It. (Wilson Pickett will cover this version on his 1974 album of the same name.)  Then of course there are soon to be classics like Small Town Talk, and of course Too Many Drivers.

There are some other things to take notice on this album which are overlooked by critics, let's have a look a some of those now. Firstly, Butterfield is known to have a antic sense of humor, enjoying practical jokes (a trickster), so the womanizing double entendre, Too Many Drivers is a perfect fit for his personality. There is no flashy guitar solo, no horn charts, just a straight ahead 12 bar downtown shuffle with the master punching his magic Marine Band, and singing a tough urban blues with conviction.  You can tell by the space he leaves between his phrases that he has grown into a mature confident instrumentalist. As he says, I don't think I am derivative... but I'm not into the competitive shit. I play and if that's beautiful, that's great. All I can say is I know that instrument, the harp, really well. I just know it really well. After hearing this track you might think that there is more traditional urban blues coming, but you would be wrong, you have been tricked by the master. (As a side note, while he is publically humble about his talent on the instrument, he also acknowledges his peers Taj and Stevie Wonder, he says with respect, They have a sense of the harp. Both of them have their own feel; they do their own thing. They're not derivative of anyone.)

(Some other footnotes of interest about the song, Too Many Drivers, was a hit for Big Bill Broonzy in 1939, and again in 1947 for Texas blues man Andrew Smokey Hogg. It is Hogg's version that Butterfield is interpreting. After Butterfield records it in '73, the song will become a standard for most blues bands that feature a skilled harmonica player.)

Another revealing track on the album is the Bobby Charles & Rick Danko song about the pettiness of life in a small community, Small Town Talk. Danko is actually holding down the bass position in the band's early days, but needs to return to his his commitments with the the Band. Charles is considered a master songwriter by the time he moves to Woodstock, but willingly accepts the role of the unofficial sixth member of Better Days. He often travels to and from gigs with Muldaur in the singer's Chevy Blazer.

Originally, Charles records Small Town Talk for his first Bearsville album Bobby Charles, and then Better Days records it in '73, but it is the Butterfield version that is often copied.  Since its release the song has been covered by numerous artists, from Boz Scaggs, Jackie DeShannon, John Martyn, Yvonne Elliman and most recently by Shannon McNally on her 2013 tribute to Bobby Charles album called Small Town Talk.  As a suggestion, if you get a chance to listen McNally's excellent album, you will hear former Butterfield collaborator Mickey Raphael, a long time Willie Nelson sideman, playing the tasty harmonica solo.  
If you have been reading any of the other pieces in The Complete Paul Butterfield, you will know that Butterfield makes very important contributions to popular music of the 60s and 70s, but he is most remembered for sound of his harmonica. He is always searching for musical idea which have yet to be attempted on the little instrument. So, this point should be of interest to those fans of his playing. When you listen to the Barron/Rebennack composition, Louisiana Flood, take note of the distinctive New Orleans back beat, and then listen to Butterfield's contributions. He lays down a staccato rhythm riff on the harmonica, which he claims has never been done before this recording. ....octaves on a rhythm figure he says, I've never heard anyone do that on a harmonica before. (As a technical footnote, Butterfield is primarily a lip purser, not a tongue blocker, but he uses the latter technique in this song.)

One last trivial, yet interesting footnote attached to the karmic title track of  It All Comes Back,: notice that during the apparent good humored joking going on in the studio, Muldaur yells out, Pretty bad, Pretty bad!  This is the nickname that Garrett gave to himself. Apparently, while frequenting the local Woodstock watering hole, Garrett, Bobby Charles and Butterfield invented a new drink which was fresh-squeezed orange juice, Bacardi rum, tonic, and lime, they called it "The Pretty Bad")

As mentioned above, the music on It All Comes Back is really a retirement project for Paul Butterfield, but it is also the culmination of everything that puts him in the prestigious position of the most successful blues singer of his generation. In less than a decade he accomplishes what most artists hope to do in a whole career.  While many critics and fans are appreciative of his efforts, some accuse him of being unfocused, and the songs are not reflective of the artist. (However, as a testament to quality of the material on this album, keep in mind that it with little to no promotion, it still sells over forty after production.)

Finally, there is a darker more subtle message Butterfield is delivering to his fans with this album.  While it is one of the best roots albums of the 70s, the songs also foreshadow a sad change in fortunes for the man who is defiantly standing in the center the album cover with the word SCUZ emblazoned on his t-shirt. When you listen to the songs they the story of a man who is realizing that his grasp has surpassed his reach. We will see in the next blog that the band's name is a misnomer, and should more appropriately be called Paul Butterfield's Darker Days.

Paul Butterfield's Better Days    Bearsville BS-2170  October 1973  It All Comes Back

Too Many Drivers, It’s Getting Harder To Survive, If You Live, Win Or Lose,    Small Town
Talk, Take Your Pleasure Where You Find It, Poor Boy, Louisiana Flood, It All Comes Back.

Paul Butterfield, vocal and harmonica, Ronnie Barron, organ, piano, and vocal on Louisiana
Flood, It’s Getting Hard To Survive, Geoff Muldaur,  guitar, vocal on Small Town Talk, Poor
Boy, It All Comes Back, Amos Garrett, Guitar, slide guitar, Billy Rich, bass, Christopher Parker,
drums, Howard Johnson, Horns, Bobby Charles , vocals on Take Your Pleasure Where You
Find It, Maria Muldaur - background vocals. Bobbye Hall, congas

Produced by: Paul Butterfield, Geoff Muldaur, and Nick Jameson.
Engineered by: Nick Jameson, Album Design: Milton Glaser, Cover Photography: Alan