It’s not like the world really needed another Clash Greatest Hits set on CD that badly, but if there has to be such a beast, this one at least works. Culled from the remasters used for this year’s Sound System box set, Hits Back is sequenced like a set from the 1982 tour, representing what the band themselves thought was their best stuff at the time of their last album, in a highly listenable running order. Despite the many stylistic shifts the band went through in its brief existence, the music on Hits Back sounds strongly unified, revealing the common heart beating underneath a variety of surfaces. It’s also a massive improvement on the group’s 80s era CDs fidelity wise, so if you’re more into their hits than rarities and not inclined to drop half a week’s wages for the big box – which we all know the REAL Clash would have insisted be sold for the price of a single CD – you might find this a reasonable substitute.
Jimi Hendrix Experience – Miami Pop Festival (CD); Hear My Train A’ Coming (DVD/ Blu Ray)
Experience Hendrix has been putting out such a huge volume of material from Jimi’s archives in the past decade, to the delight of the completest and the occasional confusion of the casual fan. These latest releases are both entertaining, if less than totally essential. The band’s appearance at Miami Pop Festival in May of 1968 is still spoken of as a historic and legendary gig, a proto-mega rock concert from the days when one or two big shows could break a band. The recordings show the Experience in truly excellent form, playing a tight and focused set, with an even-more-awesome-than-usual performance from drummer Mitch Mitchell. The setlist contains no surprises, and the only extras are a pair of short songs from the group’s afternoon performance. There are better ’68 shows out there, notably the Winterland performances released in 2011, but if you’re having more than one, this is a pretty good one to get, well recorded with a few memorable explosions. The documentary Hear My Train A Coming, which screened last week as part of PBS’ American Masters Series, is well constructed and includes illuminating new interviews with former band members and associates. It’s no improvement on the classic 1973 doc A Film About Jimi Hendrix, but manages to add some new insights as it covers familiar ground.
Miles Davis – The Original Mono Recordings
This box set compiles the mono mixes of Miles Davis’ first nine-albums for Columbia, a spectacular run that is highlighted by a pair of collaborations that rank among the most fruitful of Davis’ career: all six albums featuring his “first classic quintet” with John Coltrane on tenor sax, and the three produced with full orchestras led by arranger/ conductor Gil Evans. It’s certainly a set of music worth owning in its entirety for anyone who listens to jazz for pleasure, containing such landmark LPs as Milestones, Miles Ahead, Round About Midnight and the totemic Kind Of Blue. But what if you already own some or all of these albums in stereo?
These mono transfers do sound great, vibrant and full-bodied, and are likely the definitive mixes that Davis and his producers gave the most attention at the time they were made. Some A/B listening to Kind Of Blue and Sketches Of Spain in comparison to their stereo counterparts failed to convince me that either one was inherently superior, though there are notable trade-offs. If you’ve heard the stereo versions of these albums a million times, you may find it interesting hearing how the different pieces of Jimmy Cobb’s drum set fuse together like a single instrument in the mono mix, or how the Coltrane-Adderly solos no longer come blaring out of left and right speakers. In general, the band sounds more glued together in mono, sacrificing spaciousness for tight focus – whether this is a desirable thing will vary by user.
Michael Bloomfield – From His Head To His Heart To His Hands – 3 CD & 1 DVD Box Set
To a guy born in ’68 to rocker parents, Bloomfield and his cohorts seemed to be the ultimate in Dad Rock – music that my dad and other people his age loved, but seemingly no one else did. Certainly he’s a major player in his time – the Butterfield Blues Band’s first two albums and the Bloomfield/ Steve Stills/ Al Kooper Super Session album were totally ubiquitous in the record collections of the friends of my parents, people who were around to buy records in 1967. But while the rocker kids my age picked up a lot of musical cues from our folks – we loved the Beatles and the Stones from an early age, listened to Zeppelin, Creedence and the Who on FM radio and the Supremes, Marvin Gaye and Aretha on AM oldies radio, had our own early drug experiences sound tracked by the Doors and Pink Floyd – but I don’t remember meeting anyone less than ten years older than me that was a big Bloomfield fan, ever.
Part of this may have had to do with his near-total absence from the performing stage during the seventies, during which he was strung out and unreliable, famous for cancelling gigs or under-preparing for the ones he did show up for. Unlike legendary dead guys like Hendrix and Gram Parsons, he was still there, but not really, and right as he appeared to be cleaning up his act and gearing up for another resurgence in the early 80s, he died of an overdose.
This set collects three discs of material from throughout Bloomfield’s career and a new documentary film to create a picture of a frustrating genius, a soul too sensitive for the heavy roadwork that became a job requirement. “He never took an upper in his life – he always needed to come DOWN” notes one observer in the Bob Sarles-directed documentary Sweet Blues: A Film About Mike Bloomfield. The most fascinating material on the set comes on the first disc, starting with alternate takes of the first two songs on Bob Dylan’s Highway 61 Revisited, the session that introduced Bloomfield to his future collaborator Al Kooper. There are only three songs from the Butterfield Blues Band but one of them is the 13-minute “East-West”, a template for psychedelic jamming on exotic chord changes that presages pretty much all two-guitar jam rock ragas right up to Marquee Moon. The Electric Flag material that closes the disc is a little scattershot, an exciting collection of ideas laid on the table but without one personality strong enough to call it into focus, a condition Bloomfield himself acknowledges in the film. Better to be heartless to the other players and treat them like sidemen, than to allow everything to “become a big family.”
Disc two is a compilation of the Bloomfield tracks from side one of Super Session, with an alternate take of “Her Holy Modal Majesty”, and the live albums that he and Kooper produced in its wake. Bloomfield’s introduction to one of the gigs suggests that he and Kooper are playing together only for the eighth time, including sessions, rehearsals and everything, which surprised me since I tended to think of Bloomfield-Kooper as one of those lifelong partnerships. Considering they seem to have recorded almost every note while they were together, maybe they were – they sure made those eight days count. There are moments where everything gels and all the players are A-quality but honestly, some of this could have benefited from more actual work being put into it.
But from the sparse solo recordings that make up disc three, one senses Bloomfield wasn’t interested in prolonged periods of public work. His appearances became sporadic, though the solo acoustic performances from 1977 and 1980 presented here show that he was still evolving as a player right up to the time of his death. One of the most welcome tracks is a performance from a 1980 Dylan show in San Francisco where Bloomfield steps up to wail for what must be the last time in front of a large audience. He sounds wonderful, and Dylan sounds energized by his presence. It’s a fitting cap to a lovingly compiled set, a worthwhile tribute to a complicated and uneven but ultimately brilliant guitarist.