There are seminal moments of magic and mystery that forever shape the way we embrace the music we listen to.
Sometimes when I close my eyes, I can still hear the Paul Butterfield Blues Band live and drift back to the night of my 17th birthday on June 5, 1967.
I had taken an evening off from cramming for my high school final exams to catch Butterfield in concert.
The New Penelope Coffee House in Montreal was a dark, dank venue where the smoke hung from the low ceiling like a nicotine cloud, the audience below crammed onto wobbly wooden bleachers re-purposed from a baseball field.
Butterfield handled blues harmonica like Jimi Hendrix painted portraits with a guitar, shaking off the shackles of their instrument’s traditional boundaries to explore bold new terrains.
Butterfield wore a canvas vest of many pockets that had harmonicas poking out of each opening and had two others taped to the collection of microphones he shuffled around throughout the three sets.
Many bands included Montreal in their tour dates that summer to take in Expo 67, and my friend George and I were able to catch Butterfield three times in a span of two weeks.
Each electrifying performance differed in some ways and songs from the one before, and that fortnight became a coming of age, our personal birth of the blues and the societal changes taking place around us at the time.
We were the youngest members of an audience mixed with mostly college students a half dozen or so years older, the first wave of flower children to walk the streets in sandals, beads and bell-bottom jeans.
Although George and I didn’t realize it at the time, it was a harbinger of who we would become within a couple of years.
The New Penelope didn’t have a liquor license, so most of the audience would hustle off to the Swiss Hut next door between sets.
We shared our table and a couple of quick beers one night with the guitarist, Elvin Bishop, and the bass player, Jerome Arnold, after one particularly scintillating set.
What they must have thought about the two nervous teenagers with bulletproof fake ID is anyone’s guess, but the experience added an extra layer of “how cool is this” to our evening.
We caught the Butterfield band a few more times over the next few years, along with memorable performances by Siegal Schwall, J. Geils – back when he was a blues purist – Junior Wells, Muddy Waters and Earth Opera, often more than once.
I will forever mourn passing on the opportunity to see The Mothers of Invention though, considering how much my admiration for Frank Zappa, a charter member of my counter-culture hall of fame, has evolved throughout the years.
Turn down the lights and set 13 minutes and 10 seconds aside to digest the title track from “East West,” the Paul Butterfield Blues Band’s second studio album.
It will provide the perfect window into what that man could do with a harmonica in far superior fashion than any words I could ever hope to cobble together.
Rick Stiebel is a semi-retired local journalist.