The Electric Flag on Disc
A Review of Studio and Bootleg Recordings

By David Dann

Right: Michael Bloomfield applauds the Paul Butterfield Blues Band during their Monterey performance. Still from "Monterey Pop"

 

The Monterey Pop performance
June 17, 1967; Monterey Pop Festival, Monterey CA
Soundboard recording
 

After David Crosby’s introduction, it appears the first tune the Electric Flag performs was the one that would become its first release and its signature number, “Groovin’ Is Easy.”

All the tune’s sections are fully realized, even at this early date. Bloomfield’s opening harmonic is embellished by a horn fanfare as Harvey Brooks’ descending bass line ushers in the piece’s initial chords and melody. The playing is tight, Miles’ drumming is precise and the sound balance is good despite Michael’s guitar’s being somewhat off mic. This is clearly an arrangement that the band is thoroughly familiar with.

After the 10-bar introduction, the horns punch the downbeat and the Flag kicks the tune into tempo – a bit rushed when compared to the studio version of “Groovin’.” Nick Gravenites sings two verses with the horns offering crisp support and Bloomfield’s fills, more felt than heard. A 6-bar guitar interlude follows, with Michael plucking the raga-tinged melody over a bagpipes-like drone from the horns, organ and bass. This odd section ends with Bloomfield stretching up to a high A, and Gravenites returns for one more verse and a vamp. Sounding a bit breathless, he overreaches his range with repeated cries while the band thunders along behind him.

In later performances of “Groovin’,” Michael would echo Nick’s vocal embellishments at this point and then would extend the vamp with an intense solo of his own. But here he merely comps for the vamp’s 16 bars and then closes the piece on another fat-sounding stretch – this time to a high D.

There is thunderous applause and repeated “Thank-yous” from Nick. Clearly wound up, he then says, “Right. Whew!” and Bloomfield begins to tune. Here the recording stops.

When it resumes, Buddy Miles is the vocalist and the number is Nappy Brown’s “(Night Time Is) The Right Time,” which had been a Ray Charles hit.

Opening with a standard walking bass line doubled by the horns, the medium-tempo blues sounds solid though a bit thin. Barry Goldberg’s organ is oddly missing from the mix and, aside from a few fills, Bloomfield’s guitar is relegated to a rhythm function for the first two choruses. Gravenites sings back-up – the “night-and-day” refrain – and sounds unconvincing; Michael and Harvey may have also joined in on the refrain but, as can be seen in D.A. Pennebaker’s footage of the Flag’s performance of the finale “Wine,” their mics are off.

Buddy, however, is exuberant. He toys with the lyrics, improvising on them here and there, and urging the band several times to “play it one more time!” On the third chorus he repeatedly interjects “Baby!” – and Michael’s guitar is right there echoing his shouts, engaging him in call-and-response. The passage offers a first glimpse of an electrifying routine that he and Miles would perfect over the next ten months.

Next Michael solos for two, his Les Paul cranked to produce the trademark fat Bloomfield tone. He careens through his first chorus, using sustain and distortion to push the beat and jack up the tension. Harvey Brooks offers support with a series of staccato triplets while the horns continue their languid bassline riffing. Bloomfield then burns through a second chorus as intense as the first, but fails to build to the crescendo set up by his initial 12 bars. It’s as though he’s started at the top and can go no higher.

Miles returns with the revealing interjection, “Alright … and I’m so proud!” He then improvises around the lyrics, riffing and shouting before returning to the refrain for three choruses. Barry Goldberg’s electric piano can finally be heard, and Bloomfield provides heavy chords and fills as the band builds to a screaming climax. Buddy flails at his kit, riding his cymbals and singing for all he’s worth until the final chorus’s turnaround. The band pauses on the sub-dominant and Michael gets off a last fiery volley before the concluding flourish. The crowd roars its approval before the recording quickly fades.

After the Electric Flag’s elaborate arrangement of “Groovin’,” “Night Time” comes off as a somewhat perfunctory and under developed performance. Here perhaps is evidence for Michael Bloomfield’s dissatisfaction with the group’s Monterey appearance – the tune clearly does not rise to the standard the Flag set for itself. Though it does surpass much of the music played by other groups that afternoon, “Night Time” lacks the verve and creativity that the members of the Electric Flag thought their music should have.

The set’s last piece reestablishes that standard – and then some. Though a few of the tunes that preceded “Wine” may have been lackluster, the band’s arrangement of Sticks McGhee’s 1947 classic fairly crackles with excitement. Counted off by Nick Gravenites at nearly a shout, the band hits the ground running. They sail through a portion of the refrain melody and then vamp for four bars until Nick comes in with the first clever verse. The tempo is fleet, the playing precise – this is one tune that’s been thought out and well-rehearsed.

Gravenites enters, clearly enjoy himself. Bloomfield comps jump-band style while the horns furiously swing the accompanying riffs. Nick finishes the first verse and goes on to the refrain with nearly inaudible back-up vocals from Brooks and Bloomfield. At the end of the refrain chorus, the band rears back for a series of stops before Buddy kicks in a chromatic climb to fourth chord. Then it’s Michael’s show.

He starts out with a sustained note held for one bar and then fires off a fusillade of crisp lines to complete the first chorus. Michael starts a second by stretching up to a high G and holding it for nearly two bars, striking the string several times for maximum sustain and volume with his right arm extended high in the air. It’s a galvanizing gesture and the central moment in a wonderfully exciting performance. The horns come back in and Bloomfield takes a final chorus that begins with a repeated G to D leap and ends with another stretch to the high G.

Nick returns with the verse and chorus and then repeats the chorus two more times as the band kicks into high gear with Goldberg’s organ screaming on the off beats, the horns switching to a scaler riff, Bloomfield comping high on the neck and Buddy thrashing his drums. After the second chorus, the band breaks, plays the opening refrain melody and then walks through a turn-around at half tempo while Bloomfield squeezes out a few final licks.

A final flourish and the huge crowd erupts with cheers and applause.

In 2002, a release of outtakes from Pennebaker’s footage made available this ebullient performance of “Wine.” It stands as the only known performance on film of the Flag, and it offers one of the few visual glimpses of Michael Bloomfield’s extraordinary talent – and the only one that shows him at the height of his considerable powers. By viewing Pennebaker’s edit of “Wine,” we not only can hear Bloomfield’s superb solo but we can watch him wrestle it from his Les Paul, mouthing his lines in mock agony like some blues contortionist afflicted with shuffle tremors.

Unfortunately, the band’s encore was unrecorded.