Despite a few high-profile 70s outings (KGB, the Electric Flag reunion), Michael Bloomfield had no interest in living up to the unseemly mythology surrounding his guitar-hero past, whether with the Paul Butterfield Blues Band, Bob Dylan’s “Highway 61” recording sessions, the Electric Flag, or his collaboration with Al Kooper and Stephen Stills’ Super Session. And he’d had it with the dog and pony show of the music biz.
“I don’t know. I just don’t know. I just can’t do it,” he told Rolling Stone in 1970. “The whole commercial music scene really has me down ... People put down three, four dollars to see you, and they want something positive. If I’m playing shitty and they stand up and applaud and go crazy, there’s a paradox in it that’s insane.”
Content to anchor near his Mill Valley, California home, Bloomfield retreated: playing out when he felt like it, scoring the occasional porno film for pocket money, and teaching music at nearby Stanford University, he flummoxed the star system with a proto-punk, dropped-out, devil-may-care stance.
His ad hoc group Michael Bloomfield and Friends – often including notables like pianists Barry Goldberg and Mark Naftalin, singer Nick Gravenites, and guitarist Woody Harris, among many others – operated as living bar-band folklore, playing a wide cross-section of American music, from traditional tunes, to 50s rock’n’roll, to funky New Orleans R&B, to hallowed blues gems. Holding forth at such clubs as Santa Cruz’s Catalyst and San Francisco’s Old Waldorf, where “Between A Hard Place & The Ground” was taped, the group preferred improv to polish, grit to slick.
A liberating, raucous, to-hell-with-all-expectations vibe permeates the live 1979 “Hard Place” sessions – music played without guile, simply for the sheer joy of it. Still, Bloomfield struggled with bottling that kind of fervour in the studio. Raw and unfocused, “Cruisin’ For A Bruisin’” (recorded 1980), discounting posthumous releases, was Bloomfield’s studio swansong. By all accounts the sessions were difficult. Producer Norman Dayron, who curated Bloomfield’s career from the mid-70s on, is candid regarding “Cruisin’ For A Bruisin’”, telling journalist Ralph Heibutzki that it suffered a tortured birth, “because Michael was using drugs and the musicians were a very odd assortment of people.”
Nevertheless, one could envisage what Bloomfield was grasping for: a no-borders amalgamation of American music – encompassing blues of all styles, Crescent City funk, rockabilly, folk, and instrumentals both atmospheric and electrifying.
By Luke Torn