I’ve been to quite a few concerts over the years, many influential, some inspiring. The earliest big venue shows were in the fall of 1965, both at the New Haven Arena. In early November, it was the Rolling Stones with Brian Jones on second guitar in the wake of their summer mega-hit Satisfaction. The Stones sounded and looked great, but it was a relatively sedate performance compared with ones for which the band became infamous. A side note on the Stones show is that the first time they were booked for the Arena, the summer of ’64, the show was actually canceled because of insufficient ticket sales. Amazing. The second show, the Beach Boys with Brian Wilson on bass, on Thanksgiving Day. The Boys wore yellow short-sleeved oxford shirts with gray slacks, not their customary black-and-white and white khakis (I guess because it was a holiday) and with Brian in the fold sounded like angels. Two rather different groups but both rode the singles charts and that’s what drove the music industry at the time.
But the earliest show that made a huge impression on me was in a much smaller venue, the Cafe Au Go Go in Greenwich Village in the winter of 1967. The headliner was the Paul Butterfield Blues Band. But let’s back up a little.
I had been playing bass since 1964 in a couple of garage bands, most notably the Vanguards with Gary Gerard and Peter Neri, whom I would later play with in Bram Rigg Set and Pulse. I also played with and learned quite a bit from the Aiardo brothers, Tony and Peter, from North Haven who played first as the Highlights and later as New England Jam. They played everthing from weddings to proms to clubs such as the House of Zodiac on Route 34 on the West Haven/New Haven line. They were schooled more than most musicians in the area and worked constantly. I’ll never forget a few years later when working with them again temporarily, we played a wedding in the afternoon, a dinner-dance in the early evening and an after-prom into the early hours. This was pretty typical and I learned a great deal from both of them, particularly Peter, who was a brilliant guitarist and was my second bass teacher.
Still as late as spring 1966, I had never heard of Butterfield and found out about him through an unlikely source. I had a very unorthodox chemistry teacher at North Haven High, Peter Kelman, who was young, probably about 23, innovative and interested in a lot more than teaching his students chemistry. He had us do open-ended, special projects once a month that had nothing to do with the subject he taught.
When he found out I was interested in music and was a bass player, he asked me if I’d ever heard anything by Charlie Mingus or the Butterfield Blues Band. I said no, and he told me I should check them out right away. A trip to Cutler’s Music on Broadway in New Haven yielded Blues & Roots by Mingus and the first self-titled Butterfield Blues Band album, with Mike Bloomfield and Elvin Bishop on guitars. I listened to both religiously. Around the same time, I started picking up the Village Voice and by the late fall I noticed Butterfield was scheduled to play the Cafe Au Go Go in the Village.
That was it, I decided I was going. Without my parents knowing where I was headed, I took the family’s blue Chevy Biscayne and along with a friend, Holly Lovig, we headed for Greenwich Village. I knew my way to the West Side Highway, from family trips, and it was fairly easy getting to the village from 14th St. We found the club on Bleeker St., paid for tickets that were probably less than six bucks total and walked down the flight of stairs to the underground club that was no more than a long narrow room with a stage on the left in the center, tables on each side. The stage faced the right wall, so there was only one line of tables directly opposite it. We wound up on the far side of the stage. Alcohol was not served at the club, only large fruit drinks and a large bowl of snacks, potato chips and pretzels.
The opening acts were Richie Havens and Steve Miller, both of whom we had never heard of. Havens was actually well-known in the Village but wouldn’t attract wider interest until his performance at Woodstock near the end of the decade. Miller, I had no idea where he was from.
Havens was startling. I’d never seen anyone quite like him with his intensity, furious open-tuned strumming, slight lisp and unique interpretations of songs such as Dylan’s Just Like A Woman. By the end of his set, he was drenched in sweat and had also played High Flyin’ Bird, from Mixed Bag, an album I later bought.
Miller was an enigma. First his band came out and played a couple of bluesy numbers and sounded good. I would learn later that the band included Boz Scaggs on guitar and Ben Sidran on keyboards, two outstanding musicians who would later produce interesting solo catalogues of their own.
But then Miller came out and it looked like this guy thought he was Elvis Presley or something. I didn’t take to his posturing and sort of I’m a star with my outrageous stage presence attitude. I was unimpressed. I don’t have anything against Miller particularly and later appreciated, though never loved, some of his ’70s tunes. But that night, he just didn’t make it.
Then came Butterfield and I’d never seen anything like it. These guys were so competent, tight, powerful and playing a different brand of the blues, electrified but tasteful. I have often felt this band, which although sometimes labeled a white blues band was always integrated, never got as much credit as it deserved for being the major influence on the American blues and rock scene. Live, they were something else.
Being a bass player, I appreciated Jerome Arnold and their new drummer Billy Davenport, who had replaced Sam Lay following the first album. But what stood out were Bloomfield, who was facing directly toward the back of the club opposite us, playing a gold top Les Paul and the sound of Butterfield’s harmonica, which was gigantic. It was so big, it sounded like a horn, like a sax or something. It was commanding. Bishop was solid on mostly rhythm guitar, but his time would come later.
They played Born In Chicago, Shake Your Money-Maker, Look Over Yonders Wall and Mystery Train from their first album, but the most interesting material was from the second, East-West, released in August. Work Song, which had been in their repertoire for a while was an instrumental workout for all the solists, including Bishop, and crescendoed to an intense call-and-answer among all four players, Butter, Bloomfield, Bishop and keyboardist Mark Naftalin.
The highlight, though, was another instrumental, the album’s title cut East-West, a piece that had Indian influences before many groups started incorporating them. It was played modally rather than over a series of chord changes and was longer than the 13-minute album track. Bloomfield took it down to a whisper twice after the other soloists and built it to a chaotic, wailing wall of sound. Bloomfield’s sound was something in between the woman tone made popular by English guitarists Jeff Beck and Eric Clapton, who were starting to push amplification, and a reverb-drenched quality reminiscent of the Chicago sound. It was more of a screaming tone. Although I’ve always liked his playing and held great admiration for him, he was not among my top favorites in the long run. But on this night he was on fire and his creativity and intensity during this phase of the band has always stayed with me. I felt as good as his playing was with Butterfield, he reached a high as someone who fit into an ensemble perfectly with his own band the Electric Flag, which was never quite captured faithfully in the studio the way it sounded live.
There is an album on Winner Records that’s still available called East-West Live, produced by Naftalin from recordings he made of nightclub performances with a portable tape recorder. It has three versions of the piece showing the development of the Bloomfield composition from early 1966 to winter 1967 .
I would see Butterfield many times over the next few years and almost every time the makeup of his band would change. I went to see him at the Au Go Go around Thanksgiving break 1967 with Bishop now the centerpiece and Bugsy Maugh on bass, Phil Wilson, drums, Naftalin and a horn section of David Sanborn, alto sax, Gene Dinwiddie, tenor and Keith Johnson, trumpet. Later in Boston that winter I caught him at the Pyschedelic Supermarket, essentially an underground garage, the Back Bay Theatre and that summer at Oakdale in Wallingford with about the same band. They played Oakdale the next summer, Bishop gone by this time, replaced by a young, precocious Buzzy Feiten. Despite the personnel changes, each time the band didn’t disappoint.
That first time though was quite an experience for a high school senior. I’ll never forget the ride home, which was in pea soup fog most of the way, arriving at about 3 a.m. I don’t really understand how I got away with that, taking the car to New York, getting back so late and never being questioned, but somehow I did. It certainly would have been worth it no matter what.