Al Kooper’s task, in reminding us of the towering genius possessed by his late friend Mike Bloomfield, wasn’t in finding dusty unheard tracks for From His Head to His Heart to His Hands. When it comes to Bloomfield, who overdosed at just 37 in 1981, the likelihood is that almost everything on this new Kooper-curated triple-CD/single-DVD set comes as a surprise. Such has been the fate of this lost giant of white blues, gone to soon and — sadly, it seems — just as quickly forgotten.
And so, Kooper only includes 12 rarities, preferring instead to craft a three-plus hour journey through Bloomfield’s roving muse — grabbing a shimmering moment from his quite-literally electrifying stint with Bob Dylan, and then a boiling revelation with early hero Muddy Waters. The 36 songs found on From His Head to His Heart to His Hands, released today via Legacy Recordings, are presented in chronological order. We begin with an audition for Columbia Records that illustrates just how fully formed Bloomfield already was, before moving on to a series of signature collaborations and the creation of his ill-fated horn-driven band Electric Flag, then through Bloomfield’s long downhill run toward the last glimmerings of genius heard during a appearance with Dylan in November of 1980, just months before his untimely passing.
All of it seems to go by in the blink of an eye and, in a way, it did. Even so, there’s more than enough to frame Bloomfield’s influence on figures like Eric Clapton, Bob Weir, Carlos Santana and Jorma Kaukonen. (Much of that is examined through interviews on the accompanying DVD.) For those who were there during Bloomfield’s brief late-1960s hey day, or who have since studied liner notes closely enough, you’ll find the appropriate milestones.
Bloomfield’s time with Dylan is highlighted through found objects like “The Groom’s Still Waiting at the Altar” from the 1980 tour in support of Dylan’s Saved, and an intriguing instrumental version of “Like a Rolling Stone” from 1965’s genre-turning Highway 61 Revisited. So, too, is his tenure with the Paul Butterfield Blues Band (the mind-bending, almost psychedelic title track from 1966’s East-West is here), and with Kooper (1968’s Super Session yields the scalding, John Coltrane-infused “His Holy Modal Majesty”; elsewhere, there’s a chance to dive into “Her Holy Modal Highness” from 1969’s Live Adventures, too). Bloomfield also made important contributions to Janis Joplin’s initial solo effort, 1969’s I’ve Got Dem Ol’ Kozmic Blues Again Mama!, which produced the slow-boiling “One Good Man” for this set.
Still, the truth is, the most revelatory moments on From His Head to His Heart to His Hands might just be when Bloomfield makes unfettered explorations through his roots. He was a musician who — as improbable as it may seem, considering he was the scion of a Jewish-American family that built a small fortune in the catering equipment business on Chicago’s North Side — was simply born to the blues. Bloomfield’s subsequent career mirrored his restless soul, so he was never confined to a single genre, no matter how resonant. But From His Head to His Heart to His Hands finds its fullest flowering, for me, when Bloomfield lets it all hang down, when its title is made real through the his hometown music’s baptismal powers. He offers moments of startling, sometimes painfully honest insight into Bessie Smith’s “Judge, Judge,” from the Columbia audition; “Blues with a Feeling” and “Killing Floor” with the Butterfield Band and Electric Flag, respectively; and on the Waters favorite “Can’t Lose What You Ain’t Never Had.”
Those moments serve as both the first and the final brushstrokes in this portrait of Bloomfield, a vanished voice with an intuitive command of deep soul but also a humblingly adaptive quality to his playing. That he’s been relegated to a footnote status might be the most painful thing about the guitarist’s awful end. Here’s hoping the yeoman’s work Kooper has done in reanimating a doomed bluesman’s voice via this new career-spanning box will change all of that — from Mike Bloomfield’s heart to your ears.