Julian Cope presents Head Heritage

The Butterfield Blues Band—
East-West Live


Released 1996 on Winner
The Seth Man, June 2005ce
Entering this world as “The Raga,” The Butterfield Blues Band instrumental “East-West” eventually took shape as the extended, closing title track of their second album. A departure from the body of their previous output as a staunchly blues-based unit, “East-West” was a sprawling and spiraling piece based on the modal progressions of classical Indian music and sounded like nothing else conceived of at the time by the band...or anyone else, for that matter. And it was no “Ragas to Riches” gambit, either for no sitar was present anywhere in its 13-minute duration for it was the pioneering guitar of Michael Bloomfield that catapulted the group into the exploratory terrain of an ‘on the one’ beat inlaid with soloing that charted its momentum. There was all the space in the world for secondary guitar solos, rhythms and cross-rhythms to exchange with the taut rhythm section of bassist Jerome Arnold and ex-jazz drummer Billy Davenport, and not once did they stray from their entrenched positions atop the beat. And bandleader Paul Butterfield would lend expert harmonica accenting whenever the mood suited as section after section build to unbearably full climaxes only to simply halt in their tracks: either to restart directly into another thematic passage, or quickly shift gears into another means of accessing the inner spokes of their music’s ever-rotating wheel.

Compiled by ex-Butterfield Blues Band keyboardist Mark Naftalin, “East-West Live” is comprised of three versions of “East-West” from gigs performed by The Butterfield Blues Band between the winters of 1966-67. And since “East-West” itself was so open an exercise for improvisation and entirely capable of extending into any direction of moods, colourations and tones due to its open-ended nature and the band’s hard-working chemistry, these three versions bring the one-time 13 minute studio version to life as the sleek, fire-breathing monster it always was while also putting to rest any doubts of its rightful place as one of the more undetected root forms of psychedelia. For “East-West” predated ALL West Coast rock jamming as it influenced the repertoire of the entire top tier of San Franciscan groups from the mid-to-late sixties. Specifically, Big Brother & The Holding Company’s “Sweet Mary”; The Great Society’s “White Rabbit”; The Jefferson Airplane’s “Spare Chaynge” and “Fat Angel”; Quicksilver Messenger Service’s “Mona” and “Who Do You Love”; The Grateful Dead’s “Dark Star” (the prime example of many) as well as much of Santana’s “Abraxas” LP. And although Moby Grape recorded nothing that felt as though it was touched by “East-West”-type modalities, Bloomfield did make a post-BBB appearance on their “Super Session”-type “Grape Jam” disc...on piano, no less.

And it didn’t stop there. In Los Angeles, The Butterfield Blues Band’s subsequent Elektra labelmates Love and The Doors were especially moved and inspired by “East-West”: enough for Arthur Lee to compose the side-long “Revelations” and for Krieger and Densmore to bring to their ensemble playing likeminded free-flowing expositions: evidenced on the instrumental passage in “Light My Fire” and especially, “The End.” Even The Mothers of Invention were hip to Butterfield, with Frank Zappa not only inviting Paul Butterfield to a recording session of “Freak Out” but including a group photo with him inside its gatefold sleeve for posterity. And most unfathomably, an anonymous L.A. studio band cut a cover version of “East-West” that appeared in the film (but not the accompanying soundtrack album for) “Riot On Sunset Strip” during the LSD freak-out scene starring Mimsy Farmer.

On the opposing coast of the United States, The Blues Project were certainly listening. As was Bob Dylan, who had secured Bloomfield’s stinging session guitar on “Highway 61 Revisited” as well his participation in Dylan’s notorious 1965 Newport Folk Festival appearance... with the rhythm section of The Butterfield Blues Band as backing band. And when you consider that no less a cross-starred adept of 6-stringed innovation than Syd Barrett thought high enough of “East-West” to incorporate passages of its tenets into the like of “Pow R. Toc H” and “Interstellar Overdrive”, I can say no more. Except finally note that the sphere of influence of “East-West” continued to expand and seep into early seventies Rock: as exemplified in the extended instrumentals by The Allman Brothers Band the like of “In Memory Of Elizabeth Reed”, “Les Brers In A Minor” or “Mountain Jam.” And the tail-out of “Can’t You Hear Me Knocking” off “Sticky Fingers”... and young Jimmy Osterberg’s apprenticeship under original Butterfield drummer Sam Lay, which laid at his door another experience to come knockin’ -- not that of an older generation’s blues, but his own.

All of this and more strongly indicates “East-West” and the people who performed it were, like the title indicated, in a place between all things: a cusp as mysterious as the darkened portal the six Butterfield members were caught charging out of on the back cover of the original “East-West” album on Elektra. A place between the worlds of blues and rock’n’roll, and not folk, jazz or pop. It was just...something else, and nothing else was like it.

Like flickering, jumping flames, “East-West” unfolds an organic and hypnotic dance that constantly blossoms open over and over in an interior dialogue of passion, anticipation and love while constantly weaving a multitude of divergent threads together into larger components. In fact, so integrated is the twin guitar interplay of Elvin Bishop and Mike Bloomfield that Elektra felt it necessary to credit the order of the solos on the sleeve (as they are on this compilation.) But there are so many that keeping track of them all individually would be near impossible if not for the fact that most of them are by Bloomfield. In live performances of this time, he would fret the neck inches from and near parallel to his head -- so absorbed by and with the channeling of spirit fused into an uncanny dexterity that coaxed out an unremitting shower of sparks. And when Bloomfield cut loose, calling it mere ‘riffing’ falls short of doing the man’s work justice. It’s almost as ridiculous as marking a section of white-water rapids as ‘10 square cubic liters of hydrogenated oxygen in liquid form’ as it goes rushing past. And “East-West” is equally as free-flowing and natural a phenomenon.

First up on this collection is a version of “East-West” from The Whisky A Go-Go, Los Angeles in the winter of 1966. And although this adheres closest to the studio version, it still steps out all over the place taking chances, rollin’ and tumblin’, spilling down concourses and with all the amps-a-hummin’. The last break ends so resounding loud you can practically SMELL the heat of Bloomfield’s overdriven amplifier and everyone seems stunned in its wake. Slowly, a goofball pickup of the theme commences, as though Bloomfield’s suffered a temporary bout of sheepishness and is purposefully playing at thrice as slow a pace as apology for burning ahead at the speed of light for two minutes at a pop. Bishop slips back into the main theme, capping off into a plateau with a solo, and soon sends it off to its conclusion, joined by a blues-wailin’ Butterfield harmonica solo. You listen to the studio version for years and get the vague idea from time to time that it would probably sound great live, but not with the many truly epic rhythmic encounters that border on ESP, op-art or any garden variety trance-inducing technique. And it works at any volume, to boot.

A slightly longer second version follows, taken from the band’s performance at Poor Richard’s in their Sweet Home Chicago in the spring of 1966. Overall more sedate than the Whisky A-Go-Go rendition, there is an extended passage where everything is brought down to the quietest point and stays there until you think it’s a theme from an imaginary romantic film called “Quiet Hawaii” from 1963 starring Sophia Loren and Cary Grant (reprising their respective “Houseboat” roles several years later once the kids were off to points Ivy League) or something equally as airy and pleasing to the senses. And Paul Butterfield shows exactly the breadth of emotional range on mouth harp as he blows inaudibly sweet tones and conjures up wistful moods redolent of honeysuckle, old loves and breezy nights. Even Bloomfield has resigned to hushed paces as he quietly but persistently needles the neck of his Gibson behind the tom-toms and everything else currently set at stripped back to inquisitively serene levels. It almost seems to build all too soon back to the familiar ‘re-entry’ notes that will signal the final build and inevitable coda.

The final version of “East-West” is 28:06 long, the venue was The Golden Bear, the place was Huntington Beach, California and the date was sometime in the winter of 1967. And the results are still staggering for “East-West: Live Version #3” is by far the most visceral on this compendium, and it reaches “Sister Ray” levels of intensity. You could walk into a room when this is playing and only hear a noisy swelling of tones piled on top of an arrhythmic clatter with nothing keeping it together but a few seconds later, a slight mental beat readjustment and the rhythmic organisation reveals itself out of nowhere. The grid the entire song is based on is the organisation and the organisation is... The song.
And even though it begins quietly, this version of “East-West” will wind up building to unbearably stentorian crescendos and climaxes galore that threaten to shudder, swerve and blow apart entirely. Bloomfield’s amphetamine-rushed guitar is joined by Butterfield’s blaring harmonica that takes on the qualities of the uptown expressway horn blaring as it passes by all the local stations, and the track does take on the emotional qualities of rush hour, as it pushes frantically into the approaching anticipation of nighttime’s caresses. Bloomfield’s guitar is ferocious and spikiness itself trimmed with feedback on the verge of squalling and squealing yet just held in abeyance even as he plays alongside a harmonica line and lets it punctuate his accenting for him. The build soon accumulates into a frenzied six-man gang bang on the virgin noise spread-eagled before them until Bloomfield whips out a lead and on the tightest dime stops and switches midair into the next module of “East-West” with a growling noise rhythm guitar that is a bare wire for all and sundry to perch on and propel off. And yet, Bloomfield’s sinewy guitar still retains its force as the eye of the hurricane within this raging ‘on the one’ storm: driven as it is by a too-cool-to-sweat-and-besides-I-wear-my-damn-shades-to-bed Billy Davenport and Jerome Arnold’s hypnotic and spatial bass of few notes; played with eyes closed as he zeros in on the vibe and just melts into it.

It plateaus down to a level of intensely played quietude as Bloomfield ‘pings’ and volume controls are slightly tuned down into shimmering waves of tremulousness that swells with delicacy and nearly veer altogether into feedback. Billy Davenport still piles up the beat with a hipster bossa nova rhythm with rim shots, tabla-esque tom-toms galore and is soon striking out at anything in sight on his small kit while keeping one eye on the beat at all times as his drumming becomes the heaviest anchor that just got heavier and even more bluntly on it. Bishop’s sweet intro slowly turns gets trimmed with garlands of feedback as one more time: an extended and brutal climax builds up to the traditional break, but here they just jump the turnstile and leap into the next oncoming expressway to thr skulls and ratchet the whole kit up a notch and a half.

Some time later (two minutes? Five? Fifteen?!) the band seems to be playing a rave-up amalgam of “Sister Ray” and “Dark Star” until the elevator drops down several hundred yards to the utmost basement floor of quietude. Davenport shifts to rim shots, switches to mallets and the eventual slow down back into the final theme that continues at a murmur. Butterfield then joins in with a remarkably bittersweet harp solo that seems to contain the same heartswelling tenor all the band are currently working through...until it, of course, gets taken a 180 degree upswing in tempo, volume and density into the final build where the near-nonexistent organ of Mark Naftalin finally is able to cut over the top of the racket with a vamp of “Joy To The World”, of all things. But seeing as it was probably the encore of their last show of the tour before heading home and it WAS that time of the year to be getting full of jolly, you’d be hardhearted to wax all scornful. Another strummin’ mental build and for the final time, the conclusion of “East-West” is nigh and with a quick drum flourish it’s all over. Applause breaks out immediately and a voice from the stage (probably Butterfield) informs the audience “We’re goin’ home, baby…” in true hard-earned stage speak as well as publicly acknowledging to his band in front of everyone that, yes, they kicked ass and they damn well earned their pay that night so no arguments please, he said (mopping his brow.)

Unfortunately, it was at just about this time that things came to a head and The Butterfield Blues Band would never be the same again. As is so often the case, the creative sparks that drove the band also tore it apart when Bloomfield quit in order to give his 6-string partner Elvin Bishop ‘some space’ while Jerome Arnold and Billy Davenport departed soon afterward. Paul Butterfield set about reconstituting his namesake band with surviving members Bishop and Naftalin into a horn-based soul outfit for a few more albums on Elektra. Bloomfield oddly wound up dabbling in the same very same genre with The Electric Flag, consequently moving through a variety of Columbia Records-vetted projects with varying degrees of artistic and commercial success.

“East-West Live” is an archival release, but the gauze of its monophonic, audience recording ambience does nothing to interfere with the blazing intensity and peaceful stillness that Their Holy Modal Majesties evoke so magically here.