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January 27, 2004
Mike Bloomfield/Al Kooper/Steve Stills
Super Session (Columbia Legacy)
Al Kooper’s place in rock history was cemented the day he showed up in a New York recording studio in the spring of 1965 to watch Bob Dylan work on his next album. He’d brought his guitar along, just in case, but when Dylan decided to put an organ onto one of the tunes, Kooper offered his services. He’d never actually played organ before, but the two-finger figure he concocted on “Like a Rolling Stone” is one of the most identifiable organ lines of all time.
Kooper was in the band when Dylan when electric at the Newport Folk Festival that year, as was guitarist Mike Bloomfield. Bloomfield was one of the hotshot guitar heroes of the mid ‘60s, first with the Paul Butterfield Blues Band, then with his own group, the Electric Flag. He had also played on the sessions that produced Dylan’s Highway 61 Revisited album, the one that included “Like a Rolling Stone.”
Fast forward to 1968---Kooper had just been kicked out of his own band, the original Blood, Sweat & Tears, after their first album had failed to generate much commercial success. After his ouster, BS&T went to the top of the charts with their next album, and Columbia records made Kooper a staff producer. He decided to hook up with his friend Bloomfield and try to capture the excitement of Bloomfield’s electric blues guitar in a jam session format. This is the record that resulted.
The first five cuts on this newly reissued and remastered CD, side one of the original album, show why Bloomfield was so highly regarded by his peers. The opener “Albert’s Shuffle” is a seven-minute blues guitar workshop punctuated by sympathetic riffs from a fat horn section and Kooper’s Hammond B-3 interjection in the middle. “Stop” continues in the same vein, Kooper’s funky organ chords underpinning Bloomfield’s incredible hot licks.
Curtis Mayfield’s “Man’s Temptation” gets a churchified treatment in a Memphis soul vein, then Kooper brings out his ondioline for “His Holy Modal Majesty,” a melody and chord progression in 3/4 time that would later be borrowed by Dylan himself for a tune called “Isis” on the 1976 album, Desire. After stating its theme, the song turns into a nine-minute one-chord jam that smokes and smolders.
(What’s an ondioline, you ask? It’s a weird pre-synthesizer vacuum tube instrument played with a keyboard that used an oscillator to create waveforms and had a touch wire that could be used to create glissando and modulation. Its most memorable use in pop music was on Del Shannon’s “Runaway,” and Kooper had played it himself on “Megan’s Gypsy Eyes” on the first BS&T album.)
After the intensity of these first four tracks, “Really” is almost a throwaway, another slow blues jam that adds nothing to what has come before it, but that still possesses some intense guitar work. Not a bad days’ work.
But the next day, Bloomfield’s chronic insomnia and heroin addiction reared their ugly heads, and he didn’t make it to the session. So, Kooper called up Steve Stills, whose own Buffalo Springfield had recently dissolved, and the two of them worked with the same rhythm section to finish the album. On a two-sided record, the contrast between the sessions was so distinct that it was like having two separate records. Stills’ guitar style has more country and jazz elements in it than does Bloomfield’s pure blues, and he is more accompanist than soloist.
Ironically, side two probably got played the most by record buyers in 1968 and ’69, because it contained the album’s underground hit, an eleven minute exposition on Donovan’s “Season of the Witch,” propelled by Stills’ wah-wah guitar. “Witch” is one of those cool two-chord songs that gives great musicians (and even the not so great) ample room to stretch out, strut their stuff and invite listeners to lose themselves in the groove. It’s one of Kooper’s best known vocal performances, his organ work is sublime, and the horn lines are oh-so-cool…but that wah-wah guitar is the bomb. This tune could be heard flowing out of many a dorm room over the next couple of years.
The last two songs are anti-climactic. “You Don’t Love Me” is pretty dated, the whole instrumental mix being run through one of those late ‘60s flangers that makes it sound like the band is using a vacuum cleaner for a P.A. And the closing “Harvey’s Tune” by the session’s bassist Harvey Brooks is a nice piece of soft cocktail jazz that’s way too short at 2:07.
As is often the case with CD reissues, there are bonus tracks. Two are totally superfluous, “Albert’s Shuffle” and “Season of the Witch” with the horns removed. (I like the horns!) “Blues For Nothing” is an outtake from the sessions and “Fat Grey Cloud” is an unreleased track from the Fillmore West concert that came out on record as The Live Adventures of Mike Bloomfield and Al Kooper.
There’ve been many “super sessions” in the 35 years since this one was recorded and released, and Lord knows there are plenty of jam bands around these days, some of whom can play and some of whom can’t. But this is one Super Session that really was, that sold well in its day (reaching number 11 on the Billboard chart) and that still sounds super today.
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