The Paul Butterfield Blues Band holds an esteemed spot in Cincinnati Rock & Roll history. On Sept. 6 in 1969, it co-headlined with Vanilla Fudge the city’s memorable answer to Woodstock — the First Annual Midwest Mini-Pop Festival at Cincinnati Zoo. An occasional bestial roar could be heard between the songs.
That appearance is not in the new feature-length documentary Horn from the Heart: The Paul Butterfield Story, which screens at 7 p.m. on Nov. 7 at Over-the-Rhine’s Woodward Theater. Much as Butterfield’s performance at the zoo is revered by veteran Cincy concertgoers, it just wasn’t enough of a highlight, among so many, in the career of the only man to have played the Newport Folk Festival (1965), the Monterey Pop Festival (1967) and 1969’s Woodstock.
Butterfield, who died of an accidental overdose in 1987, was a virtuosic Chicago harmonica player and vocalist as responsible as anyone for introducing electrified Blues to a Rock audience in the 1960s. White and from the middle-class Chicago neighborhood of Hyde Park, he insisted that his bands be integrated and was dedicated to crediting and honoring Chicago’s older electric Blues musicians, like Muddy Waters and Howlin’ Wolf. And he also encouraged his own band members to be experimental — on his group’s classic second album, 1966’s East/West, he played Blues harp while his extraordinary guitarists Michael Bloomfield and Elvin Bishop explored modal Jazz, Psychedelic Rock and Indian Raga on the title song, a brilliant and groundbreaking Rock instrumental. For such work and more, the Paul Butterfield Blues Band entered the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2015.
The new film gets its title from a quote by Butterfield about the harmonica: “It’s such a personal instrument. It’s like a horn from the heart.” Director John Anderson uses old footage and new interviews from such friends and collaborators as Bishop, David Sanborn (who from 1967-71 played saxophone as part of Butterfield’s horn section, including a magnificent solo on 1968’s “In My Own Dream”), drummer Sam Lay, Bonnie Raitt and many more.
The film covers fascinating episodes in Butterfield’s career. Because he and Bob Dylan shared a manager, Albert Grossman, Dylan was able to borrow Butterfield’s band at the Newport Folk Festival (both were scheduled to play) in 1965 to famously go electric for four songs in his set. The response to that has become so famous that the equally noteworthy performance by Butterfield is lesser known. But it shouldn’t be, as the film explains. When Alan Lomax, an ethnomusicologist who favored acoustic folk and blues, dismissively introduced the Butterfield Band’s set, manager Grossman jumped him and the two started rolling on the ground fighting.
While it is his 1960s blues band for which Butterfield is best remembered, he did make other music for almost 15 years after that group’s breakup and his move to Woodstock, N.Y., an artist community that also was a base for Grossman’s business. The film includes information about Butterfield's work there with the Better Days band and with both Levon Helm and Rick Danko of The Band. (He also performed at "The Last Waltz," The Band’s “final” concert.)
Incidentally, this screening of a first-run music documentary is an experiment for The Woodward. If it’s successful, watch for more — there are plenty others out there.
Tickets are $10 in advance or $12 day of show. Visit woodwardtheater.com for details.