Julian Cope presents Head Heritage

Mike Bloomfield, Al Kooper, Steven Stills - Super Session

Mike Bloomfield, Al Kooper, Steven Stills
Super Session

Released 1968 on Columbia
Reviewed by Brandon Tenold, 21/06/2008ce

The idea was brilliant in its simplicity and concept: Al Kooper, ace session keyboardist for Bob Dylan and fresh from being booted from Blood, Sweat and Tears, a group that would soon go downhill without his guidance, would join forces with Mike Bloomfield, a Caucasian blues guitar hero who had similarly played with Dylan and had left his own ambitious horn-driven band, the Electric Flag. Rather than try to record an album of concise pop songs, the pair would use the studio as a platform for the kind of informal jamming that was beginning to dominate the stages (and back-stages) of the time period but had not quite reached studio albums yet. Remember, at this time Hendrix and Clapton, the two most acclaimed guitarists in the world, had largely kept themselves under the 5-minute mark in the studio, only unleashing their free-form guitar explorations live. Using the crack rhythm section of bassist Harvey Brooks and drummer Eddie Hoh, they would record an entire album of the kind of music that only gets produced when good friends and musicians let their hair down and just play, free of the pressures of making “hits”

At least that’s how it was supposed to happen. Plans like this rarely go off without a hitch of some sort, and sure enough, Bloomfield’s drug and psychological problems got the better of him after only one side of music was recorded. Undaunted, Kooper enlisted Steven Stills, in between his stints with Buffalo Springfield and Crosby, Stills and Nash. Thus, Kooper would get to show off two guitar hero friends, one for each side of vinyl, each showing the unique personality of their guitarists yet still having a unified sound thanks to Kooper’s influence.

Side one, “The Bloomfield Side” begins with “Albert’s Shuffle”, an instrumental blues tune that amply shows off Bloomfield’s roots in the Chicago blues scene. Although consisting of little more than shuffle rhythm and solos from the featured musicians, Bloomfield makes it a worthwhile listen. His guitar manages to flow like honey even when it stings like an angry swarm of bees, and the Brooks/Hoh rhythm section is so solid you could build a house on top of them. An instrumental cover of the R&B standard “Stop” follows, with Kooper taking center stage this time with some soul-inspired organ playing. Perhaps they should have continued with the instrumental pattern established with the first two songs, as their cover of Curtis Mayfield’s “Man’s Temptation” is marred somewhat by Kooper’s singing. He’s not painful to listen to by any means, but whereas Curtis was smooth, Kooper sounds a bit forced. Still, there is some good playing and Brooks & Hoh are as solid as ever. The most unique song of side one is next with the east Indian spy movie soundtrack of “His Holy Modal Majesty” Here, Kooper cuts loose on a contraption known as an ondioline, an obscure type of keyboard with a reedy tone that resembles an electrified bagpipe (trust me, it’s a lot cooler than I just made it sound.) Meanwhile Bloomfield lets loose with some trippy Coltrane inspired guitar, switching between sharp solo’s and rhythmic vamping seemingly telepathically with Kooper and showing off the knowledge of eastern scales he revealed to the world with Paul Butterfields “East West”. Bloomfield is one of the strongest of the white blues guitar heroes of the 60’s in that his playing is the closest to the spirit of his idols while still being uniquely his own, absorbing psychedelic and hard rock influences into his style without making commercial concessions. Another simple instrumental slow blues brings side one to a close.

The Much more vocal oriented side two, or “The Stills Side” begins with a cover of Dylan’s “It Takes a Lot to Laugh, It Takes a Train to Cry”, transforming the folk-rock standard into a much more upbeat tune. And unlike on “Man’s Temptation”, Kooper’s singing is actually an improvement over the original here! Up next is the albums centerpiece, a scintillating 11-plus minute cover of Donovan’s “Season of the Witch.” Taking the uneasy, acid-paranoia vibe of the original and adding tasteful yet exciting improvisational flights of fancy, it ranks as one of the best and most imaginative covers of a decade known for that very thing, ranking just a shade below Hendrix’s own brilliant transformation of “All along the Watchtower”. Of particular note is Stills trippy (and surprisingly funky) wah-wah guitar playing, using only a small amount of distortion but still packing plenty of bite and attitude. The interplay between band members is the strongest on this song, the whole thing churning and crashing like ocean waves on a ship yet remaining cohesive, and it never once gets boring during its entire duration. For many people out there who think of Stills as a potentially talented guitarist who never fully displayed his skills and was content to make laid-back west coast music with the edges completely rounded off, any doubts about Stills ability as a guitarist will be dashed after a listen to this song. Stills then shows his versatility further with “You don’t Love Me” a hard-rocking blues workout that lets him indulge his inner Hendrix with a series of phased, distorted licks. As the most riff oriented track on the album, it’s sure to please fans of Hendrix and Cream’s amped up psychedelic blues stompers. The last song, written by Brooks and appropriately called “Harvey’s Tune” cannot hope to compete with the preceding tracks, but it’s pleasant enough and at only two minutes is over before it gets boring.

Despite the two star guitarists never actually having played together, “Super Session” maintains a consistent flow throughout its two sides, the multi-talented Kooper acting as the perfect mediator between Chicago blues scholar Bloomfield and west coast space cowboy Stills. The album remains one of the best examples of Bloomfield’s skill as a guitarist, its only competition being Paul Butterfield’s “East West” and DEFINITELY the best example of Still’s guitar ability. Although all the players involved would pursue similar “all-star jam” projects in the future, none of them would match the chemistry, power and sheer joy of playing music heard on this one.

Reviews Index