Talk From The Rock Room: Michael Bloomfield – Live at the Old Waldorf - 'Guitar King'

Monday, February 10, 2020

Michael Bloomfield – Live at the Old Waldorf - 'Guitar King'

Pulled off the CD shelves in the ‘rock room’ today is a curated 1998 CD release of Michael Bloomfield and Friends titled Live at the Old Waldorf. The collection is pulled from varying performances by Bloomfield and his various associates held in the San Francisco (except for the first track) area throughout the 1970’s. By the mid 1970’s Mike Bloomfield had returned to his penchant for playing clubs, jukes, and small theaters close to wherever his transient bones decided to call home. A true bluesman, all Bloomfield needed was his guitar and the clothes on his back. He had touched international fame and was known as one of the best guitarist’s in the world, but his only love was playing the blues. Michael would rather play for a small crowd of appreciative blues fans than an arena full of ticket buyers. Dating back to his decline of joining Bob Dylan’s band in 1965, Bloomfield wanted things on his terms. He was a purist and stayed true to his beliefs and the blues. Playing venues close to home became Michael’s M.O. toward the last years of his life, but these venues also highlight his most loose and honest playing. While drugs would also initiate Michael's defection from fame so would his personality traits and his life long battle with insomnia. When Bloomers was on, there was no one better. While the ‘rock room’ feels the aforementioned collection is wonderful, it is a shame it has not or could not have been expanded on.

The CD begins with the one track that is an outlier, a blues medley hailing from a ‘Record Plant’ session in Sausalito, CA on November 10, 1974. The medley is comprised of ‘Sweet Little Angel” and “Jelly Jelly”. Backed with his usual cohorts, Barry Goldberg and Mark Naftalin on organ and piano respectively, Bloomfield’s band here also assembles Roger Troy on bass and vocals, George Rains on drums and Mark Adams on blues harp. Bloomfield opens the track sword drawn for a beautiful opening duel with Naftalin. Troy asks for ‘one more’ round the changes prior to the vocals to which Bloomfield answers with a searing series of lyrics. Jelly Roll Troy, feels it and is kneeling in front of his ‘Sweet Little Angel” waiting for her to spread her wings. The first break features Adams harp blowing a soft beg to which Bloomfield tastefully trills. Mike then peels off layer upon layer of licks, hitting up on a classic climb up the next reminiscent of the central riff of, ‘The Same Thing” that pushes the band to take off. Once Troy quotes ‘Jelly, Jelly’ the band corners into a substantial Chicago swing. Off mic hollers of excitement are heard and Bloomfield soars up the neck gloriously. The band congeals into a hard blues orchestra moving collaboratively in one big sound.

‘Feel So Bad’, a stellar Lightning Hopkins cover begins on a watery ascending slide lick and a pulsing yet gentle funking groove. Here the four piece line up is Bloomfield, Naftalin, Troy and Bob Jones on drums and vocal duties. A delectable vamp is entered as this selection from March 14, 1977 plays out. The rest of the selections to follow ‘Feel So Bad’ all hail from the Old Waldorf. Bloomfield plays an endless waterfall of shimmering slide work under Jones vocals that reaches the first break where he locks in. Mike takes multiple rounds of dizzying slide work here underpinned by Naftalin’s thumping keys. The ‘rock room’ has an affinity for this cut and asserts it’s one of the best of the collection.
A sinister reading of the Nick Gravenites (who also sings) original ‘Bad Luck Baby’ hailing from May of 77 follows and brings a sludgy foreboding to the proceedings. Bloomfield keeps the slide on his digit and draws in dark black inky lines. Under the vocals and on top of the chugging rhythm section Michael squiggles and squawks a stunning mid song solo spot. This is Bloomfield unchained from the porch and going after it. Naftalin plays some honky keys as a bed, but its Bloomfield’s steely strings that lend the evil to Gravenites hearty vocals.

A blues standard, Elmore James ‘The Sky Is Cryin’ continues the heat of Bloomfield’s slide playing while he pays tribute the slide master. Coming from the same performance as ‘Bad Luck Baby’ Bloomfield is on and here his playing over the intro drips down windows in big delicious drops as the musical storm gathers. After who I believe to be Bob Jones singing the first verse, Bloomfield loses the slide and fingers some absolutely burning counter riffs to the verse melody. The sky then opens up in a torrent as Michael briskly unleashes a watery vibrato filled solo that in my mind only cements the fact that this guy had to be from another planet.

‘Dancin Fool’ follows, a contagious 12 bar shuffle composed by Nick Gravenites. The cut is another welcome opportunity to swing with Michael on slippery slide. This cut comes from February of 1977 and heats up quickly as the ass shaking wiggles away the blues. Honky tonk black and whites press hips with Bloomers resplendent soloing. Gravenites free forms some burly vocals, but once again just as Bloomfield turns on the gas the track fades to black.

Another ‘rock room’ highlight comes next while helping to take the sting out of the previous songs early fade. “Buried Alive in the Blues’, another Gravenites composition, is also known as a track Janis Joplin had planned for her final LP Pearl, but unfortunately passed away before she could lay down her vocals. The song was left on the album as an instrumental tribute to Joplin. Here in late 1976 it is given a gruff and funky reading with Bloomers slide work again being a focal point. Like a hand reaching through the mud piled on a fresh grave, Bloomfield breaks through the gritty melody with frisky counter licks during the verses, before singing a beautifully sliver solo that shines warm rays of sun across the musical soil. As the heads toward its conclusion Bloomfield contributes a series horny counter melodies to Gravenites scatting.

The famed ‘Further on up the Road’ gets a substantial reading next. Played by a multitude of players ranging from jukes to arenas, this blues shuffle is always a welcome appearance in live set lists. Michael forgoes his slide here for some straight up fingering. Stringy and stellar, Bloomfield illustrates through the blues changes his encyclopedic knowledge, quoting Chuck Berry, Albert King blended with his own distinctive fingerprint. Brisk and brief, this three minute rendition flames like a sparkler then concludes.
The next to last track on the album hails from December 19, 1976 being a straight up, no chaser blues. ‘Your Friends’ writing credit is given to Deadric Malone (music publisher Don Robey), but this is debatable as back in the day writing credits were sketchy, often given to  producers, DJ’s, or management. Regardless, this straight up beer light and pool table blues is played by the four piece of Bloomfield, Naftalin, Troy, and Roger Jones. Alley dark and street lady loose, ‘Your Friend’s becomes a clinic, with rattling keys and switchblade string bending by Bloomers.

A Nick Gravenites original concludes the album with ‘Bye Bye’. Coming from the same run of shows as the stellar ‘Feel So Bad’ in 1977. Built upon a rolling and tumbling tom-tom groove, and a jive rhythm ‘Bye Bye’ again spotlights a stunning Bloomfield slide clinic, a plethora of sterling blues work is drizzled over the syncopated rhythm.  The faucet is on full for Bloomers but for some reason the track fades before its natural conclusion. Ugh, I guess in this case we take the good with the bad.

The 1998 compact disc release of Michael Bloomfield Live at the Old Waldorf is both stunning and frustrating. What makes it amazing is the aural documentation of Bloomfield in a time where he had purposely taken a lower profile. On the flip side of that coin is the editing decisions and quick fades are disappointing. Seeing that the release is now over 20 years old it does not appear that we could get a complete release from one of the shows or alternatively a deluxe edition. But, what is available is fine, Bloomfield is focused and crisp and his ‘friends’ are fully invested in the jams. Thankfully, up through current times Bloomfield’s playing is still respected, influential and looked to for an example of how to play real prime guitar blues. Toward the conclusion of his life Michael became what he always wanted be, a straight up ‘blues man’, and we are the lucky recipients of his success in meeting his goal.

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