Psychedelic Blues

By Tom MacIntosh

Paul Butterfield was the first white harmonica player to be accepted as a true bluesman due to his commitment to the instrument and his deep love for the blues, jazz and everything in between. Up to that point blues was something of ‘forbidden’ territory for whites, a musical culture that simply wasn’t their story. The Paul Butterfield Blues Band was one of the first racially mixed group at the time, and what they accomplished opened the door to blues on a national level like none before. His eclectic style of electric blues laced with jazz was a novelty.

Guitars Exchange would like to highlight the crowning jewel of their career, their 2nd and most iconic work: East West (1966). After a debut record (self-titled) showed that they could cut it, the second was more ample proof of their bona fides as not just bluesmen, but musical adventurers when blending styles such as jazz and Indian raga, with distorted psychedelica that was a new approach indeed. The band comprised Mike Bloomfield, guitar, Elvin Bishop, guitar, Jerome Arnold, bass, Billy Davenport, drums, Mark Naftalin, keyboards, and Butterfield on harp and vocals. The title track East West is a 13:10 minute long winding spiral through psychedelic terrain that bleeds into Indian raga and back into jazz and blues, over top of a constant walking bassline. Butterfield’s harp handles the ride like a boss, it is sharp and potently delivered. Bloomfield’s Fender Telecaster on this track is simply acrobatic, with solos all over the road, using reverb through his Fender Twin Reverb Silverface amplifier. The effect is hypnotic.

The first track Walkin’ Blues
starts things off with a punchy, muscular blues beat written by Robert Johnson, and performed with grit. Butterfield’s harp solo here is exceptional alongside the dueling guitars of Bishop and Bloomfield, and his voice roars the blues over it all. Get Out My Life Woman has been described as “New Orleans proto-funkby Allmusic, and is sprinkled with the colourful work of Naftalin on piano.Track 6 Mary Mary has a rock n roll hue, a bit trippy, with Butterfield’s blues harp in a starring role.

East West was pivotal to the blues-rock movement. Until then the only white boys playing black music were from Britain, with the likes of The Yardbirds and Eric Clapton, and the Rolling Stones to mention a couple. It was their greatest achievement not only on an individual level, as wonderful musicians, but as a group, they were the nexus point between rock, blues, jazz, Indian raga, and every stop in between, on top of getting white audiences to listen to their heroes like Muddy Waters (who called him ‘my son’), and B.B. King. Bloomfield was key in the Dylan go electric history and, with Arnold, was a member in the infamous Newport Folk Festival in 1965 which would lend to the birth of the folk rock movement.

The album cut a wide swathe of influence among guitarists, Bloomfield said in an interview, “Pre- East West I was listening to a lot of Coltrane, a lot of Ravi Shankar, and guys that played modal music. The idea wasn’t to see how far you could go harmonically, but to see how far you could go melodically or modally. And that’s what I was doing in East West, and I think that's why a lot of guitarists liked it. This new sound paved the way for such groups as Quicksilver Messenger Service, Santana, and the Grateful Dead. In fact Santana’s longtime singer piano/organ player Gregg Rolie is on record saying, “The music that we were going after was blues and jazz based with conga drums on it. One of the songs that kind of kicked us into playing a little bit differently was from the Butterfield Blues Band, East West”.

East West was the perfect foil for those indulging in ‘mind-altering’ realism, and and still holds its attraction today. To think 6 bluesmen could make psychedelic music sound so good, and led a legion of young fans to listen to other than Motown and surf music, was epic.

They would never reach those heights again, but that doesn’t matter; they took the lid off the way music was played forever.