The 36th annual Mill Valley Film Festival gets under way Thursday. Over the course of the ensuing 10 days Bay Area cinephiles will have the opportunity to gorge themselves on the best the independent film world has to offer, including several documentaries. At the top of my don’t-miss list is “Sweet Blues: A Film About Mike Bloomfield,” which screens at 9:30 p.m. Saturday and 2:30 p.m. October 11.
I haven’t seen the film but I can tell you it is long, long overdue. Indeed, 30 years ago when as a college student I read Ed Ward’s excellent biography, “Mike Bloomfield: The Rise and Fall of An American Guitar Hero,” I sensed the need for a documentary film that would capture the full sound and fury of Bloomfield’s blues. After all, even an author as adept as Ward can never capture in words alone the true innovation and passion Bloomfield brought to his best performances. Here’s a synopsis of the film from the festival website:
“You know, I like sweet blues. . . . I want to be singing. I want to be sweet,” said music legend Mike Bloomfield of his swampy vibe and searing, lyrical guitar playing. His awesome instrumental prowess is on full display in this raucous documentary celebrating the legacy of a hard-living, finger-fretting renegade. Described by fellow icon Al Kooper as “not just another white boy [but] someone who truly knew what the blues were about,” Bloomfield drew on African American tradition while burnishing his licks with a radical compositional approach reflecting the social and cultural upheaval of the 1960s. Dogged by heroin addiction, Bloomfield passed away in 1981, but his sterling musicality as the embodiment of Chicago blues lives on through the work of acolytes such as Carlos Santana, B.B. King and Charlie Musselwhite, all of whom testify to the master’s enduring influence in Bob Sarles’ lovingly crafted film.
Born into a well-to-do Chicago family, Bloomfield gravitated towards the city’s blues scene in the early 1960s. He played and became friends with such living legends as Muddy Waters, James Cotton and B.B. King. Bloomfield along with Paul Butterfield, Elvin Bishop and Musselwhite launched the U.S. blues boom of the 1960s. He jammed with Eric Clapton and Jimi Hendrix, and backed Bob Dylan as the singer-songwriter went electric at Newport and electrified the world with “Highway 61 Revisited.”
Bloomfield even at his peak in the ‘60s recorded infrequently – two Butterfield albums (including the trailblazing “East-West”), one fronting the Electric Flag (the first rock band with horns) and the hit “Super Session” collaboration with Kooper. The guitarist spent much of the ‘70s traveling from Mill Valley to play Bay Area gigs and as a result had all but dropped out of the public’s consciousness by the time of his death.
Bloomfield’s life and music also will be celebrated in a concert set for 8 p.m. October 11 at Sweetwater Music Hall, 19 Corte Madera Ave. Mill Valley. The tribute will feature performances from musical director/guitarist Jimmy Vivino, Flag members Barry Goldberg and Nick Gravenites, Maria Muldaur and others.
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