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

By David Dann

 

The Psychedelic Supermarket tunes
November 1-12, 1967; Psychedelic Supermarket; Boston, MA
Private recording
 

The first extant example of the Electric Flag as a fully-formed, working band comes from their two week stay in Boston, November 1-12, 1967. Recorded from the audience either by a fan or by the management, the tape’s quality varies as the band’s big sound occasionally overwhelms the mix. But it’s clear that the Flag is well rehearsed and very impressive.

The tape starts after the first few bars of “Killing Floor,” with Bloomfield soloing through the first chorus until Gravenites roars in with the vocal. Michael’s tone here is fat and his phrasing is faultless – this is again Bloomfield at the height of his considerable powers. He follows Nick with a three-chorus solo, the horns entering on the third chorus with a repeated staccato phrase for emphasis. That phrase is a variation of the riff that forms the core of Albert King’s “Crosscut Saw” (1964) and, in the studio recording of “Killing Floor,” Michael would use one of King’s trademark lines over it. Here, though, the King quote is missing. After Gravenites returns for another chorus, the band vamps on the four-bar turnaround for another twenty bars while Peter Strazza solos on tenor. Then it’s Gravenites for the final chorus and out.

The audience response is immediate and enthusiastic. At this point in their existence, the Electric Flag was known to very few outside of San Francisco, and aside from “The Trip,” their only record release had appeared just weeks before their stint at the Supermarket. Many in the audience had no doubt read about Mike Bloomfield’s new band, and most knew his of reputation from his many visits to Boston with Butterfield, but practically no one had actually heard the Electric Flag. That the band was getting over as well as it was is testament to the group’s exciting stage presence and fine playing.

After a minute of tuning, Michael calls for “Goin’ Down Slow,” and with a rhetorical “Ready?,” kicks off the slow blues. Nick sings two choruses with laconic horn backing and fiery fills by Michael. Buddy Miles offers bold rhythmic support with kick drum and tom-toms throughout Bloomfield’s searing two-chorus solo, building and dropping back along with the soloist. It’s interesting to note that Miles seems to use his cymbals much more sparingly than do most rock or blues drummers – in fact, during this tune he hardly use them at all. Gravenites sings the last chorus and brings the song to a close with one last “Ohhh … yeah.”

More tuning follows while the audience patiently waits for the next piece. A word about Michael Bloomfield and tuning – because of the extreme string bends he employed, his guitar frequently required adjustment from one number to the next. Harvey Brooks told Keenom and Wolkin that Michael “had a tuning problem …[he] was a very physical player. He didn’t change his strings every day, and we never really had a guitar-tech guy.” In addition, Bloomfield had a singular way of tuning – one that depended entirely on his sense of relative pitch. Instead of playing octaves or unisons and comparing one in-tune note to the next, Michael would strum a chord up on the neck, usually from the top down, decide which note in the cluster was off, and tune that note by plucking the open string and adjusting it up or down. He would often tune by correcting a note that had no relevance to chord he’d heard the sour note in. He can be heard using that odd method here.

Nick counts off the next tune – Junior Wells’ “Messin’ with the Kid” (1960?) – and the band charges ahead. The arrangement is dynamic and tricky, with subtle rhythmic shifts and an energizing chromatic walk up to the sub-dominant chord in the third chorus. Michael solos for three with ever-mounting intensity while the rhythm section comps furiously. Gravenites returns for two more choruses before the band ends the piece with three repetitions of the theme. The Flag’s version of Wells’ tune is taken at a fast tempo – perhaps a little too fast – and comes off like the original’s sleeker urban cousin. There is a moment of silence while the audience catches its breath, and then a torrent of applause.

Next comes the band’s signature tune – “Groovin’ Is Easy.” Bloomfield counts it off and the horns come in with their opening fanfare. The band plays through the arrangement behind Gravenites singing precisely as it did in the studio in July. The balance – aside from Miles’ stomping drums – is quite good and the parts blend well. There is no recognition registered from the audience; it appears the piece is new to them. Barry Goldberg, whose approach to comping is often simply on-the-beat chords, here has real parts to play. His organ moves in and out of the arrangement, its in-sync vibrato complimenting the moderate tempo like some rapidly beating heart. The Flag thunders through the composition and, after Gravenites finishes the final verse, vamps while Bloomfield fires off a brief solo. Here the studio version fades, but in live performance “Groovin’” has a delightful ending that has Michael dropping down several octaves and the horns reprising their opening fanfare.

The audience immediately responds with shouts and applause – perhaps a few are familiar with the tune. There is a pause and then Nick says, “We’re having a bit of trouble setting up Buddy’s mic.” A woman responds by shouting, “Turn on the flag!” Clearly the band is using its namesake prop by this time.

But it’s not Buddy who is up next. The tape is stopped and when it resumes, Michael Bloomfield counts off and begins to sing “Good to Me.” The piece, written and recorded by Otis Redding a year earlier, is a slow soul burner with rich horn parts and a bridge. It was just the sort of thing that Redding loved to perform on stage, moaning and shouting the lyrics as the band followed his every dodge – a tour de force for a real vocalist. But Michael was a notoriously shaky singer with wavering pitch, no real range and an unruly vibrato. On certain tunes he could get by, but a song like this one could be murder in the hands of an amateur. Why Bloomfield elected to sing it with Buddy Miles in the band is anyone’s guess, but sing it he does. He puts everything into it, as was his way, and the band recreates the original in faithful detail. The tempo is excruciatingly slow and the piece threatens to fall apart at moments, but the horns and Harvey Brooks’ omnipresent bass manage to keep things on track. Five minutes later, Bloomfield concludes the tune with a guitar arpeggio and the audience rewards him with polite applause.
Next up is a medley of familiar blues and soul tunes. Standard elements of nearly every chitlin’ circuit review, medleys allowed R&B groups to perform their past hits and comply with requests all in one quick performance. Here the Flag pays tribute to its influences in rapid succession, using a clever arrangement that was probably concocted by Bloomfield with help from Miles and Goldberg.

The horns open with the riff from the film “The Magnificent Seven” and then kick into Arthur Conley’s current hit “Sweet Soul Music,” sung with gusto by Buddy. It was probably Miles who suggested that the Flag put together the medley, and he must have enjoyed the irony that his former employer – the cantankerous Wilson Pickett – would be first mentioned in the tune’s roster of soul greats.

Then, after a drum flourish, the arrangement moves on to Little Richard’s “You Keep a-Knockin’” (1957) and classic rock gets the nod with Peter Strazza soloing on tenor for two choruses backed by Barry Goldberg’s eights on piano. After Buddy returns with the refrain, the tempo shifts and the Flag kicks into Guitar Slim’s languid 1954 shuffle blues, “The Things that I Used to Do.”

Goldberg switches to organ and Bloomfield offers masterful fills, shadowing Miles’ screaming, rococo interpretation of the lyric. Michael solos intensely for two, and uses a technique in the second chorus frequently employed by Albert King to build excitement. On the second four bars of the twelve, the band drops out and allows Michael a solo break supported only Buddy’s bass drum triplets. After two bars the band dramatically drops back in and Michael finishes the chorus, inspiring shouts and applause from the audience. This solo break technique would be used by Bloomfield and Miles throughout the Electric Flag’s existence, but rarely would Michael use it again with his later groups.

Buddy sings the final chorus of “Things” with more searing fills from Bloomfield and then the band holds the final dominant chord, about to launch into what sounds like James Brown’s “Papa’s Got a Brand New Bag.” But Miles unexpectedly halts the proceedings.

“Wait a minute, wait a minute … !”

The band stops, and here things become a little confused.

“I ... wanna tell you something. I wanna …” Buddy himself pauses, and giggles, perhaps realizing the mistake. Nick Gravenites starts to say something. It seems Miles has prematurely gone into the call-and-response section of the Flag’s arrangement of “Drivin’ Wheel.”

“Uh … I want to tell you ’bout my baby!”

Undaunted, Buddy punctuates his call with a drum flourish that brings in the rest of the band. Then there is light laughter as someone (Marcus Doubleday?) says, “Our baby,” and it seems that Miles has gotten up from his kit and is coming around to the mics out front. He can be heard shouting the call again off-mic while Bloomfield improvises a “tic-toc” rhythm and the unidentified voice says, “Well, folks he was making a soliloquy about his baby – he does that almost every night. But I think we might change the routine tonight and have him change microphones instead. Ha, ha, isn’t that funny …”

Here Buddy shouts, “Hey, wait a minute!,” again off-mic, and then brings the tittering in the audience (and the band) to a halt with another drum flourish. He’s back behind the drums, apparently having decided against coming out front.

“I wanna tell you about my old lady, and Nicholas’ old lady – that sweet-talkin’ and fast-walkin,’ give-her-a-little-juice-and-turn-her-loose – her name is, ah, FANNIE MAE!”

Another drum flourish – and the band is back to the held dominant chord. The medley was indeed to have gone into a Brown tune before Miles got confused. But it’s Buster Brown’s rollicking rocker “Fannie Mae” from 1959 that the Flag launches into, with Bloomfield’s guitar screaming over the cascading beat. Gravenites sings the lyric, followed by four choruses from Bloomfield, and then returns for three more while the band roars behind him. The tumult comes to an abrupt halt on the downbeat of another chorus – and suddenly the opening theme from “Sweet Soul Music” is back. The 12-minute medley has come full circle. There is another coda and a pause during which a few members of the audience gamely begin to applaud, and then Buddy kicks in a final massive flourish with a drum roll and a “Hey!”

This performance is a prime example of the desire by the Electric Flag to dazzle its audience, to put on an extraordinary show. As Barry Goldberg later told Ed Ward, “We had to blow minds, otherwise we weren’t satisfied.”

The next mind-blower is Bloomfield’s arrangement of “Drivin’ Wheel.” Using the Junior Parker chart, the band bumps through two choruses accompanying Buddy’s wildly careening vocal. Michael offers another intense solo spanning two choruses and backed by Goldberg’s organ and Buddy’s stomping drums. That Michael is nearly drowned out by the Flag’s ferocious rendition of the tune indicates just how loud the group could be. There is a break after Bloomfield’s solo, and Buddy begins his “Wait a minute ...” routine. But this time instead of stretching out the call-and-response bit as was usually part of the performance, he repeats it only twice and then immediately launches into the final chorus: “Every time she walks …”

Clearly the faux pas made during the medley has made him cut the usual “Drivin’ Wheel” histrionics short.

The applause is scattered at the end of the piece and then there is a pause in the tape. When the recording resumes, it is a new voice we hear introducing the next tune. “A little blues thing by Mr. Albert King …” This is probably Herbie Rich, the band’s baritone and alto player at the time.

The Flag then rumbles into “Born Under a Bad Sign,” guitarist Albert King’s bass-laden blues vamp that had appeared on Atco a year earlier. Written by Booker T. Jones, the tune is given a straight reading by the band, though the beat and bass line are much heavier than in the original. Bloomfield plays fills behind Rich’s vocal and doubles on the bass part after a short solo. Herbie is a competent singer but he’s no Buddy Miles, and his soulful shouts are more like hoarse yells. He works the rhythm, repeating “Bad luck! Bad luck!,” until Bloomfield flails a chord and Rich suddenly cries, “Who was that you was sleepin’ with last night?”

Here the band stops. Dead. There is no sound from the musicians or audience for nearly five full seconds. The effect is disconcerting. Then Rich counts the band back in and they resume their “Bad Sign” riff. The listener is left with the impression that something that was supposed to happen didn’t.

The vamp continues with the horns and Goldberg jacking up the beat until there is another break and Bloomfield interjects that chord flourish again. He then plays a snaking line that brings the band back in on a new tune, Eddie Floyd’s “Raise Your Hand” (1967), and it becomes clear what has just happened. Somebody – probably Buddy – missed a cue during the earlier break, and the Flag stayed with “Bad Sign” until it could work up to the “Raise Your Hand” transition again.

It’s Buddy who takes the vocal now and the band covers the tune with little variation from Floyd’s original. Bloomfield comes in with the guitar interlude while Miles moans in the background and then counts the band in with his sticks. Barry Goldberg solos over the horns riff until the piece closes on a sustained downbeat. “Yeah …” says Buddy as the audience breaks into applause.

Now it’s time for another Flag original, this time Barry Goldberg’s pop idyll called “Sittin’ in Circles.” Worked out and recorded in Los Angeles two months earlier, the tune has an ambitious arrangement that opens with Bloomfield improvising delicate melodies over Goldberg’s electric piano accompaniment before moving into tempo behind Gravenites’ clear vocal. The horns enter after twelve bars and kick the rhythm up a notch, backing Nick with lush harmonies as he goes into the tune’s melodic refrain. Michael then offers a brief solo over a four-bar funk vamp before the opening guitar-piano duet returns. The piece’s entire form is played through three times with the refrain repeated for another three to close it.

The tune’s shifting moods and its flower-child lyrics would help solidify the Electric Flag’s reputation with fans and critics as a “psychedelic” band in upcoming months, but “Circles” really is a just a well-constructed pop song that blends a little soul, a dash of folk and a smattering of rock to fine effect – an excellent example of American music, in fact. If it had appeared on the scene a year or two earlier, and had been released as a single with proper promotion, it might have had a life on the pop charts. But by May 1968, when the Flag’s Columbia album finally appeared, the tune sounded dated and superficial.

“Another Country,” credited on “A Long Time Comin’” to Ron Polte but actually composed by Nick Gravenites, comes next. A conceptual piece whose lyrics summarize popular sentiments of the time, “Country” would incorporate many of Bloomfield’s studio experiments in its final released form. Heard here several months before the Flag would record it, the composition is an adventurous tour de force that includes jazz segments, fiery guitar solos and prolonged dissonance – a sort of mini suite meant to characterize the distressed state of the country in 1967.

Michael counts off “Another Country” and the band launches into the piece, sounding tight and well-rehearsed. The horn refrain after each vocal line has a slight ritard that would be absent in the album version, but otherwise the arrangement is identical. Gravenites sings two verses and then, with the words “I’m gonna find another country,” the band does something surprising – it moves into a cacophonous section of free improvisation. Intended to represent the turmoil expressed by the singer, the noise features moans from Nick, a firestorm of notes, slurs and slides from Michael, a fists-and-elbows keyboard barrage by Barry and shimmering cymbal work from Buddy. One can assume that the horns were also going full tilt but they are lost in the mix as the wave of sound overwhelms the recording.

This goes on for over a minute. The audience must have stared wide-eyed, not quite sure what it was hearing or where the band was going. While collective improvising was common in jazz by 1967 – and even had its own category under the rubric “free jazz” – it was not something that pop bands did. For the Flag to insert “noise” into an upbeat horns-and-rhythm anthem like “Another Country” was something quite radical, and was another example of Bloomfield’s fearlessness.

Of course, if the free section had lasted for 15 minutes, audiences might not have been so accepting. But as Buddy Miles signals the end of the section and the return to tempo with a series of triplets and Michael launches into a jazzy guitar-and-rhythm solo, the crowd showers the band with a warm round of applause. The transition provides listeners with a delightful release, one that would be even more pronounced in the studio version of the tune.

Bloomfield solos for some 44 bars, recreating the feel of the Butterfield Band’s landmark “East-West” at moments and in others sounding uncannily like Carlos Santana would several years later. Then Miles, with a flourish, kicks in a heavy rock beat and the horns enter. Michael continues for another for 64 bars, building his solo in intensity and drive until the tension becomes almost unbearable – an electrifying performance. Then the opening drone of the piece returns and, as the audience applauds, Nick is back for the final verse and ending. In the Flag’s studio version, “Another Country” fades amid a wash of overdubbed sounds, but here we are treated to the piece’s in-performance coda, a rhythmic shift and tag that ends the tune with fitting gravity. The audience immediately rewards the band with loud applause and cheers – even though most have just heard the piece for the first time.

Then it’s back to the soul bag. Jackie Wilson’s 1967 hit, “Higher and Higher,” is the band’s next selection, and Buddy offers a raucous, up-tempo interpretation. The band is once again tight, delivering a dynamic and faithful rendition of the original. Beating the drums while screaming, moaning and shouting the vocal, Buddy Miles must have been an astonishing sight. He hadn’t adopted the wig and flag shirt yet, and his kit had still to be painted in psychedelic patterns, but the massive 20-year-old was unlike anything most white audiences had ever seen before. He was an unstoppable musical force of nature, and he demonstrates that force here.

After the tune comes to a crashing completion, the tape is shut off. When it resumes, the Flag begins another contemporary R&B number, this time one that opens with an introductory pastiche of soul and blues snippets. Phrases from “Hold On, I’m Comin’” and “You Really Got Me” intertwine before Buddy launches into a close reading of Otis Redding’s “I’m Sick, Ya’ll” (1966). The tune is brief, featuring Miles’ vocal and the robust Stax horn charts.

Otis Redding again gets the nod as Buddy then croons the late soul singer’s “I’ve Been Loving You Too Long” (1965). After a false start – someone isn’t ready? – Miles massages the lyrics at an achingly slow tempo while Michael and the band follow his lead. In tune and right with the singer, Bloomfield plays Steve Cropper to Buddy’s Otis. At the break, where the Stax band would punctuate Redding’s moans with three beats, Buddy holds the pause with a cry of “Ohhhh!” As the audience (and a few band members) laughs at his feigned faint, he says slowly, “It sounded so good ya’ll, we got to sock it to you one more time …” The band repeats the beats, and then Miles continues the song’s plaint, in complete control of the moment. He sings a verse, riffs a bit and suddenly his drumming ceases and he is singing off mic. It’s clear he has gotten up just as he had during the medley, but this time when he’s back on mic, he is out front.

The band continues in tempo, keeping the sound large enough to hold the tune together despite the lack of percussion. Buddy improvises phrases – “I need you, I need you so bad … don’t make me stop now …” – and even repeats a few lines from Bloomfield’s earlier interpretation of “Good to Me.” Miles cries and moans, giving it his best Otis Redding, and after a few minutes goes off mic again as he returns to his kit. Then there’s a thunderous downbeat as the drums reappear and the band pumps the volume, falling into an eighth-note rhythm for emphasis as Barry Goldberg pulls out all the stops on his organ. In a moment it’s all over with one final, massive chord, and the crowd goes wild.

At over 10 minutes, “I’ve Been Loving You Too Long” is the longest performance of the set, and the one that gets the most enthusiastic response from the audience. They shout, yell and cheer, they applaud with abandon. The Supermarket’s emcee is heard saying, “Great job, Buddy Miles. Really, it was really out-of-sight.”

Buddy Miles was a natural showman. He had seen Otis Redding’s effect on the crowd at Monterey; Otis knew how to get a rise out of an audience. Buddy wanted to do that too. The decision to do “Loving You” was probably his, and he made good use of the opportunity it afforded to create an exciting spectacle. That the spectacle was sometimes unpredictable, sometimes excessive and often had nothing to do with creating music didn’t really matter as long as the crowd ate it up. Then Buddy was happy.

But Michael was not. Spectacle was what Monterey had been about. And that was not what Michael Bloomfield wanted to be about.

Introductions are next, with the emcee introducing each member of the Flag in turn. Then it’s back to blues with Otis Rush’s 1957 shuffle, “It Takes Time.”

Bloomfield takes the spotlight once again on the straight ahead 12-bar with simple but effective horn parts. Michael opens the tune followed by three choruses from Nick that lead to one of call-and-response with the guitar. Then there are three searing choruses from Bloomfield and one from Barry before Nick returns for the final two. The tune is one that Michael had no doubt played many times since his early days sitting in on the south side of Chicago, and he knew how it should sound. With the possible exception of Rush himself, no band in the land could have played it better than the Flag.

Blues continues with a superb variation on B.B. King’s “Don’t Answer the Door” (1966), known here as “I Don’t Want a Soul Hanging Around the House.” Bloomfield opens the slow 12-bar quietly, soloing demurely over bass, drums and Goldberg’s sustained organ chords. After one chorus and Buddy’s approving “Yeah!,” the horns enter with lush harmony. Michael takes another, and then Buddy begins the vocal, phrasing the clever lyrics with aplomb – it seems he’ll never finish the back 4-bar line before the band ends the chorus, but they miraculously come together in time for the next chorus. Bloomfield fills behind Miles, echoing the drummer’s cries with dead-on accuracy. After two, Buddy says, “All right Mike, go ahead my man!,” and the runway is cleared for Bloomfield’s take-off.

The guitarist builds through the first chorus, eliciting cries from the audience, and then switches to the Les Paul’s rhythm pick-up giving his second twelve that fat Bloomfield tone. He plays a repeated phrase for the first three bars centered around a high A, the sixth note in the tune’s key of C. He then repeats the A alone for a bar as Miles beats out triplets and the band builds to a climax. It’s the Albert King break again, and what follows is hair-raising in intensity. Michael gets off a flurry of unaccompanied notes that in two bars make an old man out of nearly every rock guitarist of the day. After the band comes back in, he finishes out the rest of the chorus with equal fervor and inspires cheers and applause from the audience.

Then Peter Strazza takes three choruses on tenor, getting a rare chance to display his formidable chops. For the second two choruses, Buddy Miles instigates stops that let Strazza blow unaccompanied and he more than rises to the occasion. It’s easy to see here why Bloomfield enjoyed jamming one-on-one with the diminutive sax player.

Buddy returns with the vocal amid applause for Strazza, and Bloomfield again mirrors the drummer’s vocal lines, using feedback and volume control with uncanny precision. After a vocal break, the tune ends on a final flourish. The crowd erupts with cheers and applause.

“This is the last song of the evening folks, last one …” says Nick. “Say what? Say what!” shout Buddy and another band member, and then “Wine” is counted off. The ebullient shuffle is the Flag’s closer, and it’s clear everybody is having a great time. Michael reprises his three choruses from Monterey and adds a fourth for good measure. Nick returns with the vocal and the band brings it down for one while he goes into his rap. It’s interesting to note that when he mentions Janis Joplin, he adds “… she sings with Big Brother and the Holding Company;” it’s likely that many in the audience didn’t know who Joplin was in November 1967. The out choruses are played at full tilt and Buddy holds the half-time tag’s final ritard until the last possible second.

The applause is overwhelming and well-deserved.