Time is a great equalizer and the legend and legacy of The Paul Butterfield Blue Band has started to fade, but as members of The Blues Hall Of Fame and The Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame, they have influenced two generations of electric blues bands and harmonica players that have followed.
When they pulled into Boston’s Unicorn Coffee House during May of 1966, it was their classic line-up that took the stage. Harmonica player Paul Butterfield (1987), guitarist Mike Bloomfield (1943-1981), guitarist/vocalist Elvin Bishop, keyboardist Mark Naftalin, drummer Billy Davenport, and bassist Jerome Arnold were at the height of their powers. Butterfield and Bloomfield were extraordinary musicians and Bishop and Naftalin just a cut below.
Butterfield was a harp virtuoso. He focused on each note rather than chords, which gave his playing a very different sound and flavor.
Their set at the Unicorn has been bootlegged a number of times but this is its official release debut. The only negative is the sound quality. It struggles to be average. The good news is the instruments are sharper than the vocals, which is the important thing with this band. Real Gone Music are wizards at cleaning up the sound of archival recordings so the original tapes were probably rough. In some ways, the performance, which took place in a small coffee house setting, was probably gritty anyway and it may be close to what the audience was hearing.
Despite the sound issues, it all comes down to the music. The band was in the middle of changing their approach. Gone were the tight three and four minute songs. They were being replaced by longer improvisational tracks, of which the 12 minute version of “Work Song” is an example. Butterfield, Bloomfield, and Naftalin all thrived in an improvisational setting.
The set is typical of their early career as it is a combination of classic blues songs, traditional tunes, and a few covers of the day. “Got My Mojo Working,” “I Got A Mind To Give Up Living,” and “Comin’ Home Baby” are energetic presentations of blues songs that are required listening. Covers of two soul songs, Curtis Mayfield’s “Memory Pain” and Smokey Robinson’s “One More Heartache” explore the connection between soul and the blues.
This particular line-up of The Paul Butterfield Blues Band shone brightly for a short time and then disintegrated. Documents such as Got A Mind To Give Up Living: Live 1966 are a trip back in time with an important band that helped to change the course of American music. Despite the sound issues, it is an album well-worth exploring.