Saturday, December 3, 2016

# 63 Paul Butterfield @ The Last Waltz

  The disadvantage of living inside a culture is that it's next to impossible to fully appreciate it without some outside help. It's one of the reasons we often seek the insights of professional outlanders like comedians, artists, and tunesmiths.  More specifically, a skilled songwriter can create a two or three minute vignette which can be captivating enough that it becomes the soundtrack of our lives.

For example, during the sixties and seventies, those great pioneers of Americana music, The Band, compose songs which not only become a backdrop for a whole generation, but they also change the direction of American popular music forever. 

It is too easy to simply conclude that their music is just a synthesis of country, blues, gospel, presented in a rock format; their songs are more than just a sonic mosaic. Actually, their artistry is the product of the more complex feat of creating images of American culture which are insightful enough to transcend cultures, and generations. One of the secrets of their success is the fact that they have the outsider's advantage, four fifths of The Band are actually Canadian with only one member coming from the culture they sing about.  

Another interesting thing about The Band is that they don't achieve success the same way most artists of the day do. They're actually a reclusive unit. They  hunker down like monks in a remote house on the outskirts of the tiny New York state town of Woodstock where they carefully craft near mystical tales of life outside the mainstream. When you listen to many of their songs they seem almost part historical document, and yet are also current enough to capture the imagination of millions of young people in several countries. As American scholar Greil Marcus notes, they have a magic feel for history. They came out of Canada, but had a love affair with the American south, minstrel shows and blues singers.  
This self-imposed reclusive profile also serves as a marketing campaign concocted by their label when they hire the brilliant American photographer Elliot Landy to photograph them in Woodstock. At a time when color film is all the rage, he photographs them in black and white, crafting an image of young men who may have just walked out of a civil war painting, or some other period in ancient American history. Then there is their name, The Band, simple, yet distinct, and boasting both notoriety, and humility.  

Unfortunately, their magic doesn't last long.  Most of their best work grows out of a five year period before they begin to repeat themselves, and finally fizzle like an evening bonfire in late November. By the mid-seventies three members are preoccupied with debilitating heroin and alcohol addictions. The frustration with this social dynamic pushes their clear thinking principal songwriter to look at options outside the group. It is Robbie Robertson who proposes a halt to the self destruction, and then offers a very public celebratory wake for The Band.  

An ardent film buff with ambitions to merge his hobby with his career, Robertson tables the idea of inviting twenty one of the artists who play an important role in their career to join them in   a final performance at San Francisco's Winterland auditorium, and then filming the event for posterity. The idea will become The Last Waltz and like so many of their songs, it will become a historical document about the creators of the soundtrack for a whole generation. One of these key performers will be an important historical figure in his own right, Paul Butterfield

Similar to his colleagues in the The Band, Butterfield too earns much of his notoriety because of his time as a cultural outsider. Remember, he is the white middle class kid who penetrates the social fabric of Chicago's south side, charms the locals into teaching him their craft, and then emerges a journeyman bluesman. It may seem an uneventful feat now, but in the early sixties, it is quite an accomplishment for a young white man from Hyde Park.
In spite of the fact that most historians agree on Butterfield's contributions to post-war blues, it is probably a remote reason for him being invited to perform at The Last Waltz. Firstly, every member of The Band shares a similar opinion of him that Levon Helm confides, Paul was there for any blues based thing we wanted to do. Boy, he could really make it go. I really loved playing with him anytime. He was a good bandleader: He loved being the harmonica player; especially with Muddy. Just like all of us, I'd rather drummer, and would rather be the harmonica player. Those aren't just crass marketing blandishments either, almost every member of The Band works with him in the studio, or in live concerts. (See blog # 61) 

Of all the musicians who appear on stage with The Band at The Last Waltz, Butterfield shares the closest social bond with all the members. Robertson remembers, We knew him from Woodstock. He actually had taken us around Chicago. We had a long relationship with him up until this point. However, as Butterfield's social relationship with members of The Band deepens it also becomes darker. By the seventies there are people in Woodstock who refer Butterfield, Manuel, and Danko as the chemical trio for their excessive abuse of hard drugs.  

However, it is Butterfield's talent as a blues singer and historian that should be remembered the most. Firstly, as producer of the concert Robertson chooses Muddy Waters' 1956 hit Forty Days and Forty Nights for the great blues man's performance, but Butterfield interjects, insisting that Waters performing Mannish Boy will be most memorable. It proves to be wise advice, and a testament to Robertson's respect for Butterfield's opinion. As Waters' guitarist Bob Margolin remembers, Muddy loved the way Butterfield played on that song, setting up a warble that "holds up my voice" rather than just playing the song's signature lick. Decades later and Muddy Waters' performance still remains a highlight of the concert.

(As a side note, Robertson identifies Butterfield's harmonica on Mannish Boy incorrectly. He says Butterfield is using circular breathing during the song, but it is probably best described as extraordinary breath control. He is playing the three hole blow, the four hole blow, and then drawing on the two and the five hole, using the tongue blocking method. Circular breathing is the ability to hold a single endlessly, Butterfield is not using this technique.) 

The song chosen for Butterfield's performance is a song which both he and The Band share a history, but it comes with an intimidating lineage. Mystery Train is an old folk song which has been traced back to the Celtic tradition, then reworked by the Carter Family to earn them their biggest selling record of 1930. In the early 1953, Memphis bluesman Junior Parker reworks the song into a more urban interpretation and then two years later, twenty two year old Elvis Presley explodes into the young country market with Mystery Train as the B side of his 1955 hit,  I Forgot to Remember to Forget. Twelve years after Presley records it, Butterfield offers his own version of the Parker hit, only this time turning up the volume, and tempo to capture a whole new audience. Eight years later, The Band will attempt to mold the song into their own interpretation when they record in on their 1973 album Moondog Matinee. So, Mystery Train is logical choice for Butterfield to sing as a duet with Helm. 

Another interesting point about the version of Mystery Train from The Last Waltz is that it includes additional lyrics for which Robertson had to secure clearance from the publisher in 1973. As great chronicler of American popular music, Geil Marcus says,  It's a song that goes all the way back. Nobody knows where it began. Of Course it's a song that Elvis recorded in 1955, at the Sun Label, maybe his greatest recording there. A couple of year before Junior Parker did it a blues singer at Sun. Before that it a song called Brain Cloudy Blues by Bob Willis and the Texas Playboys, before that it was a song called Worried Man Blues by the Carter Family. When Paul Butterfield sang the song in '65 he followed the Junior Parker version which is kind of defeated, well so what, whatever, it's all fatalism. Elvis Presley completely changed that song. When he sang it, ''That train took my baby and I'm getting her back'  Well, that's how they do it tonight. I didn't see every show Paul Butterfield ever played, I only saw a couple of 'em.... I don't believe he ever played or sang this song with anymore fervor, with half the fervor that he did this night. One of the things you see in the Last Waltz is the absolute joy of performing, of people saying everything that's in their minds, hearts and bodies. It's putting everything out, leaving nothing behind, leaving not a word unsaid, and that's what you get in this performance. It's impossible to believe that there's anything more that Paul Butterfield could give this song or that there is anything more that this song could give him or the song and the performer could give to the audience. This is one of the absolute highlights of the Last Waltz. It is important to remember that a song with such a rich pedigree also demands respect, so the pressure to perform it flawlessly must have been intense, and as Marcus suggests, they nailed it!

Indeed, the performance of Mystery Train at The Last Waltz should not disappoint any of the artists who have recorded it in the past, and this version will serve as a benchmark for all twenty artists who will attempt it in the coming decades.  Fortunately, the audio portion performance is not jeopardy during the concert, but the video comes very close to ending up on the cutting room floor.

One of the unique technical features of The Last Waltz is that director Martin Scorsese chooses to document the concert with 35mm film, (a gusty choice for 1975), but he doesn't anticipate the strain the format places on the cameras. During the filming, there are constant shut downs due to overheating, and so when Butterfield begins Mystery Train, all but one camera is not operating properly. Fortunately, the unintended consequences of this catastrophe will actually serve to enhance the visual atmosphere of the performance, and catapult it into what many critics call a highlight of the concert.  

When The Last Waltz is released to movie theaters in April of 1978, it injects new life into the careers of most of the performers, including Butterfield's. In spite of the fact the early reviews are mixed, the film gains respect, and is generally regarded as the best music documentary ever made. Some calling it an important time capsule, or the greatest rock concert film ever. Even the cornerstone of Rock journalism, Rolling Stone, says of all the coffee-table albums to date, The Last Waltz is in many respects the most impressive... These accolades make the end of The Band as a creative force in popular music a tragic loss for fans. When the group leaves the stage that Thanksgiving night, even the future attempts to regroup in later years will be overshadowed by their past triumphs as creators a small, but important body of work.   

There is another sad postscript to the concert and film. The Last Waltz is also a signal from the stage wings to the artists standing in the spotlight that they should prepare to move from the center stage so a new generation can move into position. By 1978, there are new forms of music capturing the imaginations of young people the same way The Band does a decade earlier. In only a couple of years, the eighties will begin; Punk, then New Wave will invade the airwaves, and eventually, so will a new urban folk music, Rap. Similar to so many songwriters before them, these fresh artists will act as outlanders, composing their own two or three minute vignettes which will become the soundtrack of a new generation.   




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