This week I review two upcoming releases focusing on two of rock's most underrated guitarists.
- Michael Bloomfield, "From His Head to His Heart to His Hands"
This three-CD, one DVD retrospective on the short life of guitarist Michael Bloomfield, to be released Feb. 2 by Sony/Legacy, focuses on the career of an often-forgotten, rock and blues guitar legend.
Yes, he was big in the 1960s, but he never really lived long enough to be really appreciated until now.
Bob Dylan called Michael Bloomfield the best guitarist he'd ever worked with.
That's a pretty big endorsement considering the giants Dylan's worked with, from Jerry Garcia to Robby Robertson to G.E. Smith to Charlie Sexton. Each of these gunslingers had their own strengths, but none has ever played the stinging, biting blues licks that made Dylan's classic "Highway 61 Revisited" such a wonderfully soulful record. Dylan knew Bloomfield's worth, and he also knew Bloomfield's slightly manic playing fit the temper of the times.
Bloomfield was the ultimate sideman, and whenever someone desired a "hot" blues guitarist to spice up a record, Bloomfield got the call. He worked with the Paul Butterfield Blues Band on one of my favorite albums from the 1960s, the groundbreaking "East-West." Bloomfield also was a founding member of the band Electric Flag that featured drummer Buddy Miles, who was to become a part of Jimi Hendrix's Band of Gypsys.
The second and third CDs find Bloomfield in a variety of live settings, often playing ferocious blues guitar with the passion of a true believer.
Much of the material is culled from his smattering of solo albums. He also was a huge influence on a young Stevie Ray Vaughn, another white blues guitarist who inherited Bloomfield's go-for-broke and fearless guitar philosophy.
In the 1970s Bloomfield floundered and developed a reputation as a hard drug user, and his career went on the skids, ending with an unfortunate overdose as a young man.
The DVD is a documentary, "Sweet Blues: A Film About Michael Bloomfield." The film gives insight into the man's psyche and what made him tick. It's a shame he died so young, but he left behind a recorded legacy that's stood the test of time.
Johnny Winter, "True to the Blues: The Johnny Winter Story"
It must be white blues guitarist month at Sony/Legacy, as later in February it will release a four-CD retrospective of yet another fabulous blues-based guitarist who also suffered but ultimately overcame his addiction problems.
Winter got his start in the 1960s and soon earned a reputation as a smoking, hot-shot guitarist who was extroverted and not afraid to play a mix of rock and blues. By the late 1960s Winter, was signed to Columbia records, where he recorded and released a series of absolutely searing blues-rock albums, each one a masterpiece.
Winter also had a brother Edgar, whose own progressive band had a hit with the instrumental "Frankenstein" in the early 1970s, which only goes to show how freewheeling FM radio was in those days.
Winter gained a massive following through his incendiary Columbia releases and legendary live shows, where he pulled no punches and gained a reputation as one of the most exciting live blues acts ever.
Winter, however, also became plagued by a scourge many blues and jazz performers suffered, and that was heroin addiction. Unlike most other addicted artists, Winter was upfront about his problems, kicked them on his own and went on to tell his brutally frank story of his hard life with heroin.
As the 1980s hit, Winter, who was still a powerful live draw, saw his popularity slide as a result of a change in music. His bassist, Tommy Shannon, even left his band to play with rising star Stevie Ray Vaughn. Instead of giving up, Winter continued to perform and record, this time with more reverence to classic blues.
Winter eventually became accepted as a blues figurehead, and he recorded often with independent, small blues labels. He also had the chance to produce a record by his idol, Muddy Waters, on the Columbia album "Hard Again," a fabulous album I've listened to dozens of times in the past 30 years.
Winter began to headline blues festivals as the music came back in style, ironically in part because of Stevie Ray Vaughn's popularity. Winter turns 70 this year, and while he's recently been dogged by health problems, he still has a yen for the blues.
"True to the Blues; the Johnny Winter Story" is highly recommended for those who still dig classic hard blues.