Fricke's Picks Radio: Michael Bloomfield's Prescription for the Blues

Michael Bloomfield
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Michael Bloomfield performs in San Francisco, California.
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Michael Bloomfield was my first guitar hero. I never met or saw him in concert. But the clarion-treble ring of his guitar and the rapturous grip of his instinctive, melodic soloing have been a constant presence on every playback device I own, since I first heard his elegiac solo bridge in the middle of the Paul Butterfield Blues Band's 1966 blues raga "East-West" – used by an underground FM station in Philadelphia as the bed for the station's ID. The sustained, explosive and exploratory brilliance of Bloomfield's work on record between 1965 and 1968 –with Butterfield, Bob Dylan in '65, the acid-soul band the Electric Flag and across the first side of 1968's Super Session with Al Kooper – has no equal in rock or blues guitar history.

Yet after 1969, Bloomfield traded that acclaim for a half-lit fame of jamming-pal bands, indie-label releases and long spells at home in the San Francisco area, battling severe insomnia and drug use. He died in 1981 of an overdose, a pioneer who spent his last decade treated like a footnote, long eclipsed by avowed fans like Eric Clapton.

A new, definitive anthology could change that. On February 4th, Columbia/Legacy will release From His Head to His Heart to His Hands, a three-CD-with-DVD overview of Bloomfield's career, produced by Kooper. In writing a forthcoming story about the set, I went back – deep – into Bloomfield's discography and came up with this alternative radio show, which duplicates nothing from Kooper's sequence and includes an early session with bluesman Sleepy John Estes, Bloomfield's searing performance with Dylan at Newport in 1965 and evidence that Bloomfield's Seventies weren't all dark, at least when he was playing.