Mike Bloomfield, Al Kooper, Steven Stills: Supersession [extra tracks]

Steven Stills

For Bloomfield-Kooper fans, and there are many, this year has started off with a real bang. There’ve been two CD releases that Al Kooper has bulldogged back to the bins. The Fillmore East: Lost Concert Tapes 12/13/68 (which had never seen the light of day until now) was released on the very same day as this revamped and reworked Bloomfield/Kooper/Stills Super Session. This Super Session has been remastered for the first time to the producer’s (that was Al Kooper then, and now) original specifications, and the original nine tracks are expanded to include four tasty bonus tracks that are genuinely bonus tracks.

Each of these two new Bloomfield-Kooper CD’s was recorded in 1968, and each in its own way captures something of the texture of the times beautifully. But critics beware, these may not really be easily dismissed as nostalgia relics or relegated in any way to the status of artifacts mired forever in the sixties. Just listening to the remastered Super Session reminded me there could be such a thing as a super session, before the superstar jam concept was quickly done to death while the idea behind the concept was never fully realized. The original Super Session, a huge seller on original release 35 years ago, still ranks among the top 100 albums of all times by the long established music press, which an increasingly cynical, boomer-hating public might regard as the kiss of death. But hearing the music again after being away from it for a long while reminded me how very good they were, and also prompted me to suspect that there are many Bloomfield-Kooper fans out there who don’t yet know they’re Bloomfield-Kooper fans. To cut to the chase, this Super Session is chock-full of solid playing and this, without a doubt, is the Super Session version to own.

All the more so because you won’t get to hear Michael Bloomfield playing quite like this anywhere else, and that’s rightly what everyone should be paying attention to. His sense of freedom here is noticeable, even when he’s exploring the harder blues edge of “Albert’s Shuffle”. His tasteful, easy rolling phrases on the blues-drenched “Really” is a wonder to behold, while a drift into R&B on Howard Tate’s “Stop” is given a surprising, fluid, and free-ranging psychedelic instrumental treatment by Bloomfield. An out take from the original session called “Blues for Nothing”, with Bloomfield slowly sliding and carefully popping notes that may cause chills to run down your spine and raise the hair on your neck, has thankfully has been reinserted here as a bonus track. Another bonus track “Fat Grey Cloud” is a previously unreleased gem. A live track recorded at Fillmore West in 1968, it features Bloomfield and Kooper slowly stepping their way through some occasionally nasty blues while maintaining their composure with excellent tone and exceptional grace. Bloomfield concludes the instrumental with a cooly understated riff slightly hazed with subtle fuzz tone.

Al Kooper, the human superglue that still holds Bloomfield-Kooper mythos intact, is by no means a slouch himself. He branches into playing the Ondioline, a very strange-sounding ancestor to today’s compact synthesizer. Kooper laid his hands on this French invention by Jean Jacques Perry and came up with “His Holy Modal Majesty”, a wild instrumental experimentation which summons up sonic memories of bagpipes transforming into Bulgarian harmonies.

Bloomfield played on only five songs, which was one side of an LP, one half of the album. Then he split. Kooper, perhaps exhibiting grace under pressure but certainly always there to be relied upon, hastily rounded up Stephen Stills to fill out the other side. Though the album became a resounding commercial success, it was widely reported then and now that Bloomfield viewed it not so much as a super session but a super-successful scam.

Anyway, Stills was rounded up in a hurry for a session that threatened collapse, and while he may not have arrived with a guitar case packed with his own material, he did put his foot on some mighty great wah-wah for a cover of Donovan’s “Season of the Witch”. This CD features two versions: the popular famous one (which as originally recorded was deemed thin and so was filled out with the bright and shiny punch of horn arrangements); and a bonus track that is a spectacular remix of the original with the horn parts removed.

Standing now unadorned, the horns-free “Season of the Witch” is positively spooky and is a perfect musical representation of trying to find a way through those dark times (or any dark times). At 11 minutes, neither version would ever have made it to AM play because of length. But the horns-free variant could easily have become the favorite of FM underground radio (back when there was underground FM radio reflecting the existence of an underground), full of bone-shaking, spine-chilling organ work and sneaking, snaking, sexy-sounding, with always a whisper of the sinister wah-wah. The subtle ebbing movement on guitar, Stills’ voice, and the dramatic keyboard weave and work together magnificently. Stripped as it is now of the tacked-on horns exposes a completely different song. Not just that the voice and instruments sound purer in their interaction and intensions, but the willingness of experimentation, the risk-taking, the reach-for-the-sky attitude all come to the fore beautifully on this version.

Without the added instrumental distraction, the movement of the music through an atmosphere of eerie darkness seems to resolve on a more profound note. The concluding moment of the song evokes an unanticipated response from the listener, a glimmer of recognition there is still possibility, a suspicion there is chance for change, perhaps for the better (even if preternaturally supplied). All this is signified by an instrumental ascension, that movement ending with the lightly touched final beauty of a single belled chord that simply evokes awe and a sense of wonder.

This is really the Super Session to own.