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Named after a 1964 blues compilation on Elektra, in 1965 the band auditioned for Columbia Records. During the session for the auditions, producer Tom Wilson hired Al Kooper for the sessions and he was subsequently invited to join the group.
Columbia turned them down, but Tom Wilson, who by late 1965 had moved to MGM Records, signed the Blues Project to MGM's Verve/Folkways subsidiary. A great label.
They did that most unusual of things, they released a live album as their debut album. It made sense really because this was a band that was already built on blues jams and improvisation. However, although it was recorded live during the Blues Bag four-day concert on the evenings of November 24-27, 1965 at the Cafe Au Go Go in New York City, they shortened a lot of the songs to fit the album format. It was all cover version on that record except for "The Way My Baby Walks" by Andy Kulberg
By the time it was released in early 1966 Tommy Flanders had left the band. It was a moderate success (#77 USA) and stayed on the harts for 21 weeks, and the band toured the U.S. to promote it. While in San Francisco, California in April 1966, the Blues Project played at the Fillmore Auditorium, their brand of long form blues jams went down well with the hippie crowd
Their second album Projections was laid down in the fall of 1966.
This was a more musically ambitious outing and took the blues into a more psychedelic and jazzy direction. It’s not a record often mentioned in dispatches as hugely influential, the way The Butterfield Blues Band’s East West is, but it remains an important record in the history of jam band music. It peaked at #52 in a 36 week stay on the charts.
The centerpieces of the album were an 11-and-a-half minute version of Muddy Waters' blues standard "Two Trains Running" featuring Danny Kalb on vocals and lead guitar, and Al Kooper's instrumental "Flute Thing" featuring Kulberg on flute, it would go on to become an FM radio staple. It is a perfect expression of the late 1966 hippie dream, I think.
Soon after Projections was completed, however, the band began to fall apart. Kooper left the band in the spring of 1967. Their third release was called Live At Town Hall ( #71 USA) even though only one song was recorded live at Town Hall in New York; the other songs were live recordings from other venues, or studio outtakes with overdubbed applause, which was a very odd choice to make really. Al Kooper's "No Time Like the Right Time," was released as a 7” and was the band's only charting single, making #96
The Blues Project's last hurrah was at the Monterey International Pop Festival held in Monterey, California, in June 1967. By this time, however, half of the band's original line-up was gone. A fourth album, released in 1968, was called Planned Obsolescence and featured only Blumenfeld and Kulberg from the original lineup, but was released under the Blues Project name at Verve's insistence. Future recordings by this lineup were released under a new band name, Seatrain. I literally only learned this last year. Blew my mind!
A Best Of.. compilation made #199 in 1969 and features all their peaks. Really lovely groovy cover art too
Koop went on to form Blood Sweat & Tears, perform on the Super Session albums and later discovered and produced Lynyrd Skynyrd as well as produced some wonderful solo records.
The Blues Project, with a modified line-up, reformed briefly in the early 1970s, releasing three further albums: 1971's Lazarus, 1972's Blues Project, and 1973's The Original Blues Project Reunion In Central Park (which featured Kooper but not Flanders) which came out as both a double and a single album. While still good, these are hard to find but less essential records and they didn't enjoy any charts success.
Their three key releases are important in the history of rock because they mark the transition of blues rock into longer form workouts. There’s a good case to argue that the Blues Project, perhaps in tandem with the Butterfield Blues Band were the first jam bands, predating even the Grateful Dead. We now take for granted the long instrumental trips but in 1965 it was a really original and new approach in rock, taking its lead from jazz, of course. In Danny Kalb they had one of the finest, though often unheralded electric blues guitarists and in Al Kooper they had one of the most important figures in popular music; a legend in his own lifetime.
If you’ve not played them in a long while or never got around to digging them, start with Projections, it really is a satisfying record that paints with the full rainbow.