The Butterfield Blues Band – East-West

East-West (1966)


1. Walkin’ Blues 2. Get Out Of My Life, Woman 3. I Got A Mind To Give Up Living 4. All These Blues 5. Work Song 6. Mary, Mary 7. Two Trains Running 8. Never Say No 9. East-West


If the first album was masterful but inherently formulaic, then East-West sees the re-monikered Butterfield Blues Band branching out big time but kicking just as much ass as before. I was trying to figure out why I didn’t give the debut, an album I’ve loved and treasured since I was 13, a straight up A. I pondered the matter for a few seconds before my mind wandered to what the dining hall was serving for dinner. Then I watched two episodes of Scrubs before finally returning to my original proposition. I decided that even though the songs on The Paul Butterfield Blues Band were excellent and so well ingrained within in me that a few bars of “Born In Chicago” probably comes out my butthole whenever I pass gas, they are also inexorably hewn in by a self-limiting mold. People had been playing I-IV-V chord sequences in 12-bar form and singing in blues scales for like 50 years before Paul Butterfield showed up – there just wasn’t that much new left to be done. Playing harder and faster with flashier chops definitely helped, but that didn’t quite transcend the form so much as enhance it with musical steroids.

East-West is significantly less reverent toward the blues than the debut was, and it’s all the better for it. Sure, the first song on here is a Robert Johnson cover—you can’t get any closer to original source blues than that—but rather than imitating the bare-bones Delta style of the original, they turn it into a menacing stomp, complete with a couple of furiously buzzing Elvin Bishop guitar solos. That shit’s rock ‘n roll if I ever heard it, man. The most bluesy they get is on the appropriately-titled suicidal dirge “I Got A Mind To Give Up Living,” which, like several of these tracks, benefits from some slick acoustic piano (courtesy of now-official member Mark Naftalin, pictured with the rest of the band, including new drummer Billy Davenport, on the cover) in place of that Hammond organ. Otherwise, a somewhat rushed-through version of Muddy Waters’ classic “Two Trains Running” sounds a lot closer to the Animals than it does to Muddy himself, and the public domain cover “All These Blues” is downright bubbly. They even do A MONKEES SONG! No, I’m totally serious! I don’t know how much the vapid but infectious pop rock of the Monkees was respected by people who listed to Chicago blues in 1966, but I have to imagine the Butterfield Blues Band rendering Michael Nesmith’s “Mary, Mary” is probably akin to Jack White covering Lady Gaga. Well, I don’t know about you, but I would love to have heard the White Stripes do “Poker Face. And as far as “Mary, Mary” goes, the band really makes it their own, making it kick ass with a foreboding fuzz riff to along with the catchy as balls melody. Apparently the Butterfield version actually came out before the Monkees’ did – how the hell did they hook that up?

But all that stuff amounts to barely the half of what makes East-West stand out stylistically from both its predecessor and traditional Chicago blues. The other half (literally, since together they make up almost half the album’s running time) are the two mondo-length instrumental jams. The first to appear is the 8-minute “Work Song,” which I’m told by Wikipedia is a “hard bop standard” originally written by jazz cornettist Nat Adderly. Now, call me an uncultured rube if you want, but I just don’t really get instrumental jazz at all. Now, I do really enjoy a lot of vocal swing-type stuff, like Ella Fitzgerald, that is considered jazz, but I have rarely discovered an instance in which a bunch of guys blowin’ and tootin’ their horns for twenty minutes has any interest to me outside of serving as background music as I do classy things like sip champagne, eat shrimp cocktail, and fuck your wife.

As an otherwise cultured music student and human being, I have often wondered why this might be. At first I thought, like Mark Prindle, that as a fan of three-minute rock songs I don’t really appreciate the value of playing like eighty billion trumpet solos without bothering to write a melody. That may be a contributing factor, but with “Work Song,” I like the soloing – maybe only because Paul Butterfield and Mike Bloomfield are doing it. Bloomfield’s guitar work here is more effective than it might have been on the debut, owing to the fact that on the rest of East-West, he toned down the near constant twiddling he displayed on its predecessor. So if it’s not necessarily the soloing, than what’s my problem? Ultimately I’ve figured out that the tonality of jazz chords are just not pleasing to my ears, which are more accustomed to the less complex chordal styles of rock, pop, blues, and folk. Why must jazzers insist on every single chord being a major 7th chord, or a 9th, or 11th, or 13th chord? Why so many notes? It just clutters everything up and makes it sound ugly to me. A goddamn plain old major triad never hurt anybody. I guess this is why “Work Song”—though the idea of a jazz song played with rock instrumentation and muscle is interesting, and it’s hard not to be impressed by the chops displayed—is my least favorite song on the album.

The 13-minute Bloomfield/Nick Gravenites-penned title track, on the other hand, is a titanic accomplishment. It avoids pissing me off with ugly jazz chords simply by avoiding chord changes altogether. It’s a modal piece, see, which basically means it doesn’t use scales stays on one chord the whole time, distinguishing it from most Western music, which is created by capitalist pigs to please the Great Satan. It’s also one of the first extendo tracks in rock, being more or less concurrent with the Rolling Stones’ “Goin’ Home” and the Doors’ “The End.” But unlike those two, which exhibited varying degrees of aimless fucking around, “East-West” isn’t just stoned jamming…  it’s conscientiously composed, with counter-melodies and rhythms, synchronized soloing, and Bloomfield wanking off into all sorts of weird, cool places. Parts of it sounds like hypnotic Indian music, parts of it sounds like groovy, psychedelic jazz, parts of it sounds like noisy rock. Without ever changing chords it takes you on a journey for 13 minutes. I’m not really one to listen to instrumental music for that length of time too often, but lemme tell ya… it’s cool as fuck.

One Comment

  1. victoid wrote:

    East West is one of my favorite LP’s, an entity unto and of itself, notwithstanding the wayward jazzy improv that Bloomfield uses to hijack the title cut.
    I do want to raise a lonely voice in defense of Michael Nesmith, the accidental Monkee. Unlike the other clowns chosen to join that pathetic parody of pop-rock; like “Circus Boy” Mickey Dolenz. (I refuse to defame the good name of The Beatles here…the show’s creators were not so circumspect), Nesmith was an actual working musician, songwriter and producer. But (he said “But”, heh heh), the best thing Nesmith ever did was as a laser disc pioneer (the first commercial digital video format; just look it up). He created, produced and starred in a full-length comedy variety film called Elephant Parts. My favorite segment is the game show parody “Name That Drug” (I am from the 60’s after all!). You can watch it HERE, or actually view the entire video HERE. Watch it, and cut Nesmith a break. He’s a true ahtist!

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