Greetings again from the darkness. Even the grainy concert footage and somewhat muffled audio of the opening clip do nothing to offset the raw energy and power of Paul Butterfield and his blues harp. If you are a blues lover, you are already familiar with his music, and you’ll likely learn more about the man. If the blues aren’t your thing, it’s still fascinating to see someone so talented and committed to their art.
Documentarian John Anderson does a nice job of blending interviews from family members and band members with video clips and historical data, mostly in chronological order. Mr. Anderson also acted as editor of “The Super Bowl Shuffle” video of the 1985 Chicago Bears, as well as numerous projects with Brian Wilson of The Beach Boys. This time out, he captures the essence of a musical genius not nearly enough people have tuned in to.
Broken into segments (1942-65, 1966-71, 1972-1987), the film takes us through Butterfield’s childhood in the Hyde Park area of Chicago, and through his final on stage appearance just a couple of weeks before his death. Along the way, we hear from bandmates like Elvin Bishop and Nick Gravenites, Paul’s two sons and his brother Peter, as well as his former wife Kathryn, who describes him as the love of her life. One of Paul’s sons shows us the now-vacant lot where the club once stood in which a teenage Paul played with the likes of Howlin’ Wolf. It helps us understand where his love for the blues developed, how he formed one of the earliest integrated bands (with Jerome Arnold and Sam Lay), and how the great Muddy Waters became his life-long mentor and friend.
We get to hear the earliest known recording of Butterfield from 1962, and then footage of him at Newport Folk Festival in 1965, Monterrey Pop Festival in 1967 (where he debuted a horns section), and of course, Woodstock in 1969. It’s the 1965 story that is perhaps the most interesting, as it took an impassioned plea from Peter Yarrow (of Peter, Paul, and Mary) to get Butterfield a spot in the festival, and then he and his band electrified (pun intended) the folk audience with powerhouse blues. This is the same festival where Bob Dylan shocked the audience by “going electric” (with Butterfield’s band as back-up). The music landscape shifted from the messages of folk music to a more rebellious and harder sound.
Other interviews include David Sanborn, Al Kooper and Bonnie Raitt … each more effusive than the other when discussing Butterfield’s talent and stage presence. We see Butterfield’s own high school yearbook quote, “I think I’m better than those trying to reform me”, and we hear a clip from his “Blues Harmonica Master Class” recorded in 1984 (released in 1997). It was 1976 when Butterfield joined The Band’s farewell concert for “The Last Waltz” (movie and album), and we hear about Paul’s continued and numerous efforts to find the right sound and band in the second half of his career.
Legendary Producer Paul Rothchild, known for his work with The Doors and Janis Joplin, certainly recognized greatness in Butterfield and helped with some of his best recordings. Sadly, the 1980’s brought about severe peritonitis which led to various stomach and intestinal surgeries for Butterfield, which in turn, led to alcoholism and drug abuse. We get a clip of Butterfield on stage with Stevie Ray Vaughan in 1987, mere days before Paul died of a heroin overdose at age 44. Fortunately for us, the musical recordings live on for a man often described as a force of nature on the blues harp.