England had Clapton, Beck and Page, but here in the States the name of one guitarist commanded the respect of all three members of the British Triumverate of blues-rock: Michael Bloomfield. The Gibson Les Paul legend with a Custom Shop guitar created in his honor was only 37 when he died from a drug overdose in 1981, leaving behind a trail of recordings that until now were too disparate to do more than suggest the depth of his legacy and virtuosity. But his friend and playing partner Al Kooper, another giant in the annals of rock, has curated a new box set that puts Bloomfield’s estimable abilities in context.
“I’m trying to replicate what King of the Delta Blues Singers did for Robert Johnson in 1961,” says Kooper, regarding the three-CD plus DVD set From His Head To His Heart To His Hands. “A lot of people didn’t know about Johnson because so many decades had passed since he recorded, and yet when that album came out English kids like Keith Richards, Mick Jagger and Eric Clapton were swept up by it. I want to catch people who don’t know what Michael sounded like or maybe don’t even know his name. I loved Michael’s music for the intellectualism of what he played, which is why I came up with the title. I think his music started in his head and then went to his heart before he played it.”
The set starts with Bloomfield’s early demos and his emergence as the lead guitarist on Dylan’s classic Highway 61 Revisited at age 22 and continues to the brink of his death. Along the way it samples his electric and acoustic solo work, recordings with the Paul Butterfield Blues Band and the Electric Flag, and smart, edgy live performances with Kooper, Dylan and others.
The DVD Sweet Blues, an hour-long documentary directed by Bob Sarles, expands on the music with interviews featuring Dylan, Kooper, Gibson "Red Dog" ES-335 owner Elvin Bishop and Electric Flag vocalist Nick Gravenites. Bloomfield himself narrates via a sprawling tape-recorded interview sampled by Sarles.
Bloomfield’s voracious curiosity about music in general — not just blues — helped shape his courageous approach. His avid listening embraced bluegrass, jazz, Indian classical music, and Bulgarian and African folk. His picking method was equally eclectic. He could flat pick, but preferred the organic tone generated by plucking strings with his fingers or thumbnail, or by using his index fingernail as a pick. Bloomfield used fingerpicks or thumb picks for lap steel and resonator guitars. He also preferred running his Les Pauls through loud, clean amps with plenty of headroom and minimal breakup for a more open tone than Clapton, Page and Beck.
“I could never make heads or tails of his technique,” says Bloomfield’s friend and 20-year musical collaborator Gravenites. “It was like he was part Romulan. Everything about the music we were about to play would be perfectly clear, and then he’d start and the Cloaking Device kicked in. I’d watch his fingers moving everywhere and have no idea what the hell he was doing.”
Kooper thinks it was Bloomfield’s anti-music-biz stance that kept him from achieving the fame of his British counterparts. “First, he didn’t dress up,” Kooper relates. “All those guys — Clapton, Page — they dressed like rock stars. Second, he was done with the music business by the time he was 34. He said, ‘Enough of this shit.’ ”
Gravenites agrees. “Back then the music business was packed with thieves. When we started out we were launched into a sea of ugly.”
There’s also the matter of Bloomfield’s premature death, which took him from the public’s view in 1981. “I never thought of him as a junkie,” Gravenites says. “He’d junk up for a while and then he’d stop. Michael was a genius. He was like Lenny Bruce or something. He was very well read and could talk intelligently about all kinds of topics: art, poetry, history. I look back on those years — his generosity, his humor, his intelligence, his amazing musical vision — and they’re beautiful memories.”