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Michael Bloomfield box sets the record straight

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The new 3 CD/1 DVD set “From His Head To His Heart To His Hands: An Audio/Visual Scrapbook” (out February 4 in the U.S.), is a musical love letter from Al Kooper to his dear, departed collaborator and friend, guitarist Michael Bloomfield.

The audio discs are separated by category: “Roots,” early recordings; “Jams,” with Kooper in 1968; and “Last Licks,” mostly from 1969 and 1977. The DVD is “Sweet Blues: A Film About Mike Bloomfield,” a documentary by Bob Sarles 15 years in the making.

While Bloomfield’s name is known among music fans - after all, he played with Bob Dylan on the album “Highway 61 Revisited,” and at his infamous “electric” Newport Folk Festival performance - his legacy has been mostly forgotten outside of a small, hardcore fan following. After playing with Dylan, the Paul Butterfield Blues Band, the Electric Flag, and various collaborative efforts, most notably “Super Sessions” with Kooper, Bloomfield’s reputation for missed gigs, drug addiction, and an early death, clouded the memory of all he had accomplished.

While I’m obviously aware of Bloomfield’s work with Dylan at the epicenter of the musical and cultural revolution of 1965, my first thoughts of the guitarist were usually from the movie “Festival,” where the guitarist came across as a young, fresh-faced, unpretentious music lover who had no illusions of being a black blues guitarist, even mentioning he had a Bar Mitzvah.

While I have a sampling of Bloomfield recordings in my own collection, I did not realize how revolutionary his guitar playing was in the days before Cream and Hendrix. Even though Dylan has mentioned the variety of styles in which Bloomfield played, I was only familiar with his trademarked stinging, electric, blues-based leads, as heard on “Tombstone Blues.” For an education, just pop in disc one of “From His Head To His Heart," which starts with three tracks from a previously unreleased 1964 audition for legendary talent scout John Hammond, the man who signed Aretha Franklin, a blacklisted Pete Seeger, Carolyn Hester, Dylan, and later, Leonard Cohen and Bruce Springsteen, among many others, to Columbia Records. The young guitarist tackled a variety of styles that day, including a dexterously mind blowing “Hammond’s Rag,” captured here with Bloomfield’s mix of confidence, enthusiasm, and manners. Hammond’s reaction will melt your heart.

The discs follow Bloomfield’s blistering recordings with Dylan, Butterfield, the Electric Flag, Kooper, Muddy Waters and Janis Joplin, but the eye-opening solo material is what really captures Bloomfield’s personality. His mixture of blues, jazz, ragtime, and other forms of American music, along with his humorous introductions, monologues, confidence and humility, are so endearing, it’s easy to see how he impressed, and befriended, his peers.

Unfortunately, to the emerging counter culture, being a white Jewish boy from a well-to-do Chicago family was not as hip as being a black blues player, a cool English cat, or a West Coast hippy. That’s ironic, considering most of the “cool” San Francisco guitarists were former folkies who recently went electric, sometimes with help from a generous Bloomfield, while this Jewish kid went into the dangerous parts of Chicago to learn the blues from the best, and kept returning until he earned their respect. He also persuaded promoter Bill Graham to book B.B. King, Muddy Waters, and other underground blues legends to play the Fillmore.

Bloomfield could have been huge, but he didn’t care about being famous. He was into the music, and that’s all he wanted to play. Sadly, after achieving his goal of being a great blues player, it appears there was nothing left to prove, and he took drugs to calm down his active mind. After a guest spot with Dylan in 1980, captured here, and a planned tour with Kooper, Bloomfield OD’d in 1981, at the age of 37.

Because of the road on which he decided to travel, Bloomfield has become a musical footnote, unrecognized as one of the best of the era. “From His Head To His Heart To His Hands” goes a long way to rectify this. The accompanying “Sweet Blues” DVD, with Bob Weir, Bill Graham, B.B. King, Jorma Kaukonen, Jack Casady, and many other friends and collaborators, helps tell the story, as does the extensive liner notes by longtime fan Michael Simmons, who recently did the same job for Dylan’s “Another Self Portrait.”

For lovers of 1960s and 70s music, or the blues, or guitar players in general, this box set is an essential purchase. It’s an introduction and education. It was obviously made with affection, and that comes shining though.

Keep up with Harold’s Performing Arts Examiner news columns. Just click on Subscribe above, or follow @DylanExaminer on Twitter. Harold Lepidus also writes the Bob Dylan column for Examiner.com. Thanks for your support.

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