The greatest band to come out of Chicago during the 1960s? This one without question, or at least as it existed on their first two albums. Even though I'm a product of the Chicagoland area, most of the local outfits from that aforementioned decade have never impressed me that much. Although there are some notable exceptions, I've always felt that there was just a little too much of a teenybopper element present in the sound of a lot of Windy City rock groups of the era. That, however, was hardly the case with vocalist-harmonicist Paul Butterfield's Blues Band, who, in its earliest incarnation, was not only Chicago's finest musical aggregation from the 1960s, but also deserves greater recognition as one of the most talented and innovative groups in the United States during this period.
Of all the so-called "white blues bands," none came close to this unit's collective virtuosity and ability to transcend the genre. In reality, they were not a white group but rather a racially-mixed one as evinced by the presence of drummers Sam Lay (on their first LP, The Paul Butterfield Blues Band) and Billy Davenport (on their sophomore effort, East-West) in addition to bassist Jerome Arnold, with all three of them being veteran black musicians from Chicago's blues club scene. That the group was based in the South Side of the city also gave them an edge over the blues-rock competition since they were much closer to the music that inspired them in the first place. While the Paul Butterfield Blues Band's first album does a nice job interpreting the form, East-West distinguishes itself as their true masterpiece. The blues covers remain superb, but it's the exploration of other styles including soul-funk (Lee Dorsey's "Get Out of My Life Woman") and jazz (Nat Adderley's "Work Song") that make it indisputably exceptional. Even so, the LP is really at its finest on the 13-minute title track that virtually invented raga rock. I cannot help but display some regional pride here. Throughout 1966 and early 1967, a bunch of guys in Hyde Park were at the forefront of the American countercultural music curve by playing the kind of extended improvisatory material that would become more closely associated with groups from San Francisco in the immediately following years. Indeed, the Butterfield Blues Band was an important and often underacknowledged influence on Haight-Ashbury musicians who were just learning how to jam. Well, don't just take my word for it. As noted music writers Gene Sculatti and Davin Seay discuss in their absorbing book San Francisco Nights: The Psychedelic Music Trip 1965-1968,
The most distinguished early visitors were Paul Butterfield's Blues Band, whose first appearance, a full-house Family Dog stomp (with Quicksilver Messenger Service) at the Fillmore the weekend of March 25 (1966), was a pivotal gig. Simply put, Mike Bloomfield's incendiary guitar and the six-man band's swinging ensemble approach were inspirational to San Francisco's new musicians. The tight, compact songs from the group's year-old first album were now stretched open, retaining their shape but brimming with solos by Bloomfield, second guitarist Elvin Bishop and organist Mark Naftalin. There were real jazz licks, Oriental riffs and wailing Mideastern desert winds - all compatibly placed in the instrumental travelogue "East West," as yet unrecorded. After the second set, local boys like John Cipollina and Jerry Garcia went home with their ears buzzing and their fingers twitching, eager to put as much into - and get such sustained highs out of - their own music.
As indicated by the title, East-West Live collects different in-concert versions of this trailblazing instrumental epic that add considerably to its legacy. Dave Marsh's booklet notes provide some fascinating details on the origins of this piece as well as its technical aspects:
Mark Naftalin says that Michael Bloomfield brought "East-West" to the Butterfield Band in the days following an all-night acid trip (in Cambridge in late 1965). "Mike sequestered himself in the wee hours of the night," Naftalin recalls, "and when he emerged at dawn he said he'd had a revelation into the workings of Indian music." At first simply called "the raga," "East-West" was an exploration of musics that moved modally, rather than through chord changes. As Naftalin explains, "This song was based, like Indian music, on a drone. In Western music terms, it 'stayed on the one.' The song was tethered to a four-beat bass pattern and structured as a series of sections, each with a different mood, mode and color, always underscored by the drummer, who contributed not only the rhythmic feel but much in the way of tonal shading, using mallets as well as sticks on the various drums and the different regions of the cymbals. In addition to playing beautiful solos, Paul played important, unifying things in the background - chords, melodies, counterpoints, counter-rhythms. This was a group improvisation. In its fullest form it lasted more than an hour."Although this CD does not feature that fabled 60-plus-minute rendition mentioned above, the three versions it does include are still nothing short of breathtaking. The sound quality is quite good, even if the performances were captured by the relatively primitive portable tape recording technology of the day. Each interpretation of "East-West" has its own virtues and ably demonstrates the ongoing evolution of the piece. But for my money, "#3," which clocks in at 28 minutes and even quotes the Christmas carol "Joy to the World," wields the greatest transportative powers.
1. East-West, Live Version #1 (Hollywood, Winter 1966)
2. East-West, Live Version #2 (Chicago, Spring 1966)
3. East-West, Live Version #3 (Huntington Beach, Winter 1967)