Electric Flag on Disc
A Review of Studio and Bootleg Recordings
By David Dann
Right: Bloomfield solos during a Flag performance at the Fillmore Auditorium, probably in 1967. Unknown photographer
At the Fillmore
December 7-8, 1967; Fillmore Auditorium, Winterland Ballroom, San Francisco, CA
voice of impresario Bill Graham introduces Bloomfield and company at their
December 7 Fillmore Auditorium show with wry inflection: “An integrated-esthetic
American music band, the Electric … Flag.”
The tape, probably made by an audience member, has inferior sound quality. In places it speeds up; in others it cuts out, possibly omitting tunes. But the quality is sufficient enough to convey the excitement and energy of the Electric Flag. They are at the top of their form.
After Graham’s introduction, the band roars out of the gate with a cover of Stevie Wonder’s contemporary hit “Uptight.” The first time the Flag is known to have performed the tune, they fatten Wonder’s arrangement with rich harmonies and add a quick 2-bar break in which the horns punch out a pair of ascending arpeggios. Buddy Miles comes in with the refrain and first chorus, singing as if the tune were his alone. After a second refrain, Buddy kicks the boogaloo rhythm into a shuffle beat and the band plays a 6-bar interlude that runs through a chord cycle and is tagged with the arpeggio run.
Then Michael takes the spotlight for a 56-bar solo, working from the middle range to highest note fretable on his sunburst Les Paul – a screaming D. The band returns with the interlude section and then Buddy is back for the refrain and final chorus. On the final refrain, Buddy shouts and moans as the band vamps and Michael Fonfara's organ takes the melody. They build to a crescendo and an abrupt stop, capped by a last sustained D-chord.
“Uptight” sets the standard for the rest of the performance. The Electric Flag's reworking of Stevie Wonder’s infectious two-chord dance tune is not only a measure of the band’s creativity during this period but also further evidence of the Flag’s desire to blow concert goers out of their seats (if only they had seats at the Fillmore).
The audience has no time to catch its breath because the Flag moves right into its next tune. It’s a slow blues – something Bloomfield and Miles had been working on. They called it “Texas.”
A musical pas de deux between the guitar virtuoso and the mountain of soul behind the drums, “Texas” would become the tune most often cited by blues fans following the release of the Flag's Columbia album. On the record it would be formidable, but in concert “Texas” attained a dynamism unparalleled by any other rock-blues tune of the day. Such is the case here with its premier before a San Francisco audience.
Michael opens the slow drag by soloing quietly over the lowing horns for one chorus, and then taking another with just the rhythm. He is in full command, making every note count, displaying his mastery of phrasing and nuance. He purposely restrains his attack, saving the best for later. Buddy enters on the third chorus, and Michael adds a fourth voice to the horn harmonies by using his volume control to bring up chords after he’s struck them.
Buddy and Michael then begin their dance. Miles sings “I just got in from Texas, babe” and holds the first word of the next phrase, “Youuuu …” Bloomfield picks up that note and plays it back in perfect imitation. The guitarist inserts fills between Buddy’s phrases and the horns swell with each chord change, punctuating the rhythm as the slow blues begins to gather steam.
Miles’ second chorus is more of the same. He concludes it with the admonition, “But I don’t wanna do it, baby … but I got to do it – yeah!” Shoot his old lady’s dog, he means.
But there are no pyrotechnics from firearms. Instead, Michael launches into a double-barreled solo of his own with a series of long, plaintive notes. Buddy shouts encouragement as Bloomfield’s guitar literally begins to wail. The band punctuates every phrase while Buddy no doubt conducts from behind the drums.
Bloomfield soars through one chorus and takes on another. At the end of the first four bars comes another Albert King-style break and Michael punches out a cluster of notes low on the neck while Buddy beats triplets on his kick drum. The intensity of the moment carries over into the next six bars as the band comes back in and Bloomfield runs through a flurry of notes that climbs again to that high D. As the chorus concludes, the band drops way down and Michael uses his volume control to bring his solo in for a gentle landing.
Amid scattered applause for Bloomfield, Buddy begins the next verse quietly but quickly builds up to screams and moans. He holds notes while Bloomfield shadows him, mirroring his tone and attack. On the final verse Buddy sings as if possessed while beating the drums mercilessly. Bloomfield looses a torrent of phrases in support as the horns walk the beat right up to a full stop in the turnaround. “… treated me like I was a Ringling Brothers clown!” sings Buddy, and the Flag comes in on the final flourish with Michael tossing off one last volley. The applause is immediate and peppered with cheers.
“Cresting, cresting …” Nick Gravenites tests his mic, and someone says, “Ready, Buddy?”
Ready, Miles kicks off another new tune. This time it’s a rocking version of Howlin’ Wolf’s “Killing Floor” (1965). The horns open the number with a fanfare and Bloomfield takes a chorus before Nick comes in on the vocal. He sings three while Michael plays rhythm in the style of Hubert Sumlin and Miles and Brooks tag the last bar of each chorus with an eighth note phrase.
Bloomfield then launches into his solo and reaches the upper end of his guitar’s range before 10 bars have passed. In his second chorus, the horns veer into the “Crosscut Saw” riff and this time Michael uses the Albert King phrase. He holds and then resolves a note repeatedly as the horns lend staccato support. By the third chorus, the band has become a blues juggernaut with Michael at the helm.
Nick returns for two and then the band vamps on the turnaround while Peter Strazza solos on tenor. The tape becomes garbled here, but it seems clear that Strazza gets more than the 20 bars he had in Boston to develop his solo. The recording stops and then resumes as Gravenites sings the final chorus and Bloomfield dispenses ripe fills. The band repeats the eighth-note phrase three times to finish the tune as the audience burst into cheers and applause.
Barry Goldberg’s “Sittin’ in Circles” is up next. The ethereal opening 4-bars feature a more confident Bloomfield delicately improvising over Fonfara’s shimmering arpeggios on electric piano. The tune’s form is precisely what it was in Boston a month earlier – three choruses, brief guitar solos over a four-bar funk vamp, three repeats of the refrain to end the piece. The playing is once again tight and well balanced – an indication of how consistent the band could be when things were right.
There’s applause and then a cut in tape. We next hear Michael checking his microphone – “Wait a minute, are these on yet?” – and then he counts off another new tune. It’s Little Richard’s “Directly from My Heart” (1954), and Bloomfield opens it by soloing for a chorus.
Then it’s another difficult Bloomfield vocal. The tune requires the vocalist to hold the word “directly” for a full bar, a 5-second duration at the number’s slow tempo here. While Little Richard specialized in such vocal feats, its rigors stretch far beyond Michael’s earnest singing capabilities. So as Brooks and Miles move the rhythm forward backed by riffs from the horns and triplets from Goldberg’s piano, Bloomfield strains to put the tune across for three choruses. His voice falters and cracks, but he peppers the lyrics with stinging guitar fills and succeeds on enthusiasm alone.
He takes two for his solo, offering typical Bloomfield lines redolent with fat stretches and fine vocal-like shadings, and then returns to sing three more choruses. A stop on the last chorus’s turnaround and a final guitar flurry close the piece. Mild applause rewards Michael’s efforts.
It’s on to Albert King’s “Born Under a Bad Sign.” After some Bloomfield guitar over Harvey Brook’s blues vamp, Herbie Rich comes in on the vocal. He sings two choruses and, as the band vamps, the tape becomes garbled and cuts. When it resumes, the Flag is rocking over Brook’s single-note bass line while Rich improvises lyrics much as he did in Boston. This time, though, Herbie riffs using a familiar R&B counting device.
“Late at night, when
the clock strikes 3 …” he sings, moving in rhyme through the hours up to seven
o’clock. Then, with a scream, he brings the band down and, instead of going into
Eddie Floyd’s Raise Up Your Hand," takes a different tack.
“… without further ado, I’d like to turn it over … to … the … ’Lectric Flag.”
Harvey Brooks’ bass booms as Buddy drops back, keeping time on the rim of his snare. Peter Strazza noodles on tenor in the background, and then there’s a smattering of applause from the audience.
One can imagine what has happened. The lights have dimmed; the band’s prop – its American Legion electric flag – has been hit with a spotlight. As Herbie introduces it, Fonfara switches the fan on and the Stars and Stripes flutters in the artificial breeze.
Then the musical Flag surges as Buddy Miles hammers his kit over the pulse of Brooks’ single-note line. There’s a brief pause and sporadic applause from the audience before the band returns to the “Bad Sign” riff. After a minute, Buddy and the rhythm section tag the tune with five bars of staccato eighth-notes followed by a flourish dominated by Michael Fonfara’s Hammond B-3.
Cheers and applause reward the band, but the overall impression one has of this second version of “Born Under a Bad Sign" is that the tune is still evolving. The mid-performance flag theatrics put its repetitive structure to good use, but without the visuals “Bad Sign” comes off as overly long and unfocused. As this is the only other version of the tune we have, one can only imagine that improvements were made in later renditions.
There’s another pause in the tape and then we hear Michael Bloomfield kick off a sprightly shuffle blues by B.B. King called “Rock Me, Baby” (1961). As the elder statesman of electric blues guitar was on the roster that night at the Fillmore, Michael was no doubt paying tribute to his mentor. After two choruses of B.B.-inspired blues lines from the leader, Buddy Miles begins to sweetly sing. A celebration of the pleasures of connubial love, the tune’s lyrics are anything but subtle. But Buddy coyly restrains his delivery while Michael interjects pointed obbligati throughout the drummer’s two choruses.
Michael then takes four for himself, soloing in solid Bloomfield style and demonstrating blues substance without flash or excess. This is his longest solo of the night, and he was clearly at pains to offer B.B his best playing.
The tape begins to speed up in places at this point (the recorder’s batteries must have been wearing down), and though Buddy’s voice appears to change key several times after he returns, he and Michael continue their duet for two more choruses before ending the piece on the turnaround.
Another version of “Messin’ with the Kid” finishes what we have of the Fillmore set. Its break-neck tempo is most likely the result of the recording machine’s fading power source, but even at the correct speed the tune is a workout. Where the Boston version of the piece immediately followed the opening theme with Nick Gravenites’ vocal, here Michael takes the first chorus. He improvises around the melody starting in the second four bars and burns through the refrain as Nick enters and the tune takes off at a gallop. The horns and rhythm are tight even at this tempo and the sound is balanced – the Flag is in full blow-them-out-of-their-seats mode. Nick’s three choruses fly by in less than a minute and then Michael takes off. He solos for two choruses with just the rhythm section, starting at mid-range and slowly building tension. The horns return on the third chorus and set up the fourth, Bloomfield’s final statement of the evening. Michael plays these last twelve bars at the top end of the Les Paul’s range, executing breathtaking runs with rhythmic precision, pitch-perfect stretches and vocal-like vibrato. His tone has the classic Bloomfield fatness and vocal fluidity.
Those 12 bars last only 15 seconds, but they stand as Michael’s finest moment of the evening.
Nick comes back in after the refrain for two and the Flag then takes it out following a last repetition of the refrain melody. The applause starts only after a pause and, surprisingly, is light and brief.
Saturday night the band moved over to the larger Winterland Ballroom to accommodate the bigger weekend crowd.
The recording of their performance is again of mediocre quality with dropouts and speed fluctuations, but it is clear enough to convey the band’s exemplary musicianship.
An announcer introduces the show as “… Saturday night at the Grand Ole’ Opry.” This snippet has given rise over the years to the belief that the Flag must have performed at some point in Nashville, but the statement is only a bit of humor by the emcee who was making oblique reference to the country music that was playing over the Winterland sound system prior to the show’s start.
After their introduction, the Electric Flag opens with its cover of Otis Redding’s “I’m Sick Ya’ll,” a tune just released by the great soul singer. Ironically, the day after the Flag’s Winterland appearance Redding would die tragically in a plane crash in Madison, WI.
The band doesn’t immediately launch into the up-tempo soul shouter, however. As it had done in Boston, the Flag coyly plays an opening medley of trademark American music styles. After a 2-bar gospel melody, Buddy counts the band in on a 4-bar stomp that abruptly morphs into a slow blues with a searing solo by Michael for another 4 bars. Next the band moves on to the familiar “You Really Got Me” refrain and then into the horn riffs from Sam & Dave’s “Hold On, I’m Comin’” for 8 bars before Buddy brings in “I’m Sick Ya’ll.” The band sounds tight and energized, and their mini-medley had no doubt grabbed the audience’s attention.
It’s interesting to note that Bloomfield had also used this musical collage technique with the Butterfield Band, occasionally opening sets with a rapid-fire pastiche of familiar blues tunes and styles.
Buddy Miles’ kick drum and staccato riffs from the horns begin the tune proper. A vamp with a turnaround, “I’m Sick Ya’ll” is one of Redding’s lesser known compositions though it has the Barkays’ trademark sound with driving bass and rich horn harmonies. Bloomfield can just be heard weaving little countermelodies in the background, playing the role of Steve Cropper.
Buddy sings two verses, his words all but unintelligible on the tape but the intensity of his delivery quite evident. A brief vamp follows with more fills from Michael and then Miles returns for an extended third verse with screams and asides leading to a final turnaround. The Flag then draws out a vamp for 20 bars before reaching a climax with an abrupt stop. The audience breaks out in cheers and applause. “Thank ya,” responds a winded Buddy.
The drummer then counts off “Drivin’ Wheel.” The medium tempo blues again has Buddy and Michael playing off each other as the guitarist drops in lead fills between the drummer’s phrases. The performance by now is even more pumped than the one in Boston. Miles seems on the verge of uncontrolled hysteria as he deconstructs the tune’s lyrics, moving from a scream one second to a low growl the next. It’s astonishing how he is able to so completely subvert the tune’s rhythm with his singing and yet keep a rock-steady beat on his trapset.
After two choruses, Michael steps in with a slightly off-mic solo. His phrasing is flawless, the fat sound of his Les Paul filling the Winterland’s cavernous space. He takes one chorus and then, four bars into a second, inserts one of those Albert King stops, something he didn’t do in the Psychedelic Supermarket version of “Drivin’ Wheel.” At the conclusion of his second chorus, the band stops and Buddy begins his routine.
“Wait a minute, wait a minute, wait a minute!” he admonishes the audience as they begin to clap sporadically. Here’s Buddy’s version of the original Junior Parker asides, delivered this time in the right tune.
“Got somethin’ wanna tell ya,” he croons. A band member interjects something unintelligible that’s punctuated by chord from Bloomfield, and the audience begins to titter.
“I wanna tell you ’bout my baby.”
Here the band comes on the downbeat with a flourish and the confused audience begins to applaud again.
“C’mon, now wait a minute! Give us a break, man,” ironically pleads Buddy. He hesitates and the band member now interjects, “Our baby” – no doubt a reference to Buddy’s confusing his “Fannie Mae” routine with this one during the Boston show.
Buddy picks up the taunt and pretends to go into the “Fannie Mae” bit.
“I wanna tell you ’bout my too-fine, ever-lovin’, good-lookin’ …” Here he laughs and some band members join him, realizing he’s kidding.
“I wanna tell you ’bout my baby!”
After a final cacophonous flourish drawn out by Miles, the Flag kicks back into the tune.
“Every time she walks …!” Buddy screams, Michael perfectly echoing his note on “walks.” The final chorus comes on at full tilt and ends with a stop in the turnaround. Buddy holds the pause before the concluding chord this time for a full 10 seconds.
The tune has clearly
evolved from the version at the Psychedelic Supermarket into a Buddy Miles
mini-drama. The audience roars its approval.
Next up is “It Takes Time,” the Otis Rush blues. Michael calls out the key and launches right into the tune without counting the band in and organist Mike Fonfara comes in ahead of the beat. He drops out after a few bars leaving Bloomfield and Harvey Brooks to lock in the rhythm. Nick Gravenites enters after a chorus of guitar and offers four of his own.
Then it’s Michael Bloomfield riding high over a thundering Flag for three before the band falls back and Michael solos quietly for one and gradually builds intensity for four more choruses – at which point the tape becomes garbled. Even at an incomplete eight-plus choruses, however, Bloomfield’s excellent “It Takes Time” solo stands as his longest of the evening.
Michael then counts off “Groovin’ Is Easy,” bringing in the horns with a fat harmonic. The band is clearly comfortable with the complex arrangement by now, having played the tune for more than six months. The tempo is a bit brighter than it was in Boston, and Nick gives his three verses the full benefit of his clear baritone. He then vamps on the “so hard” refrain until Bloomfield enters in full flight, soloing until he can climb the neck no higher. The horns return for the fanfare coda and the audience rewards them with solid applause.
“Goin’ Down Slow” is next, kicked off by Bloomfield’s gritty guitar and the horns walking through the 12-bar’s turnaround. Nick sings again, with Michael contributing a flurry of fills throughout his two verses. At the end of the second verse, Gravenites ushers in Bloomfield’s solo with a request: “Preach a little for me, Michael!”
Bloomfield’s solo proceeds at a laconic pace; he even holds a note to the point of feedback for a full bar-and-a-half. Fonfara’s electric piano accompanies him as he builds through two choruses, only to drop back completely for the third. Michael then uses his volume control and sustained feedback to roll out a series of indolent, languid phrases, culminating in a staccato brace of upper-octave notes in the final bar before Nick returns.
“Don’t call no doctor …” Gravenites wades through the final verse with more fills from Michael over lush horns, taking the tune to its final turnaround and out. While Michael’s playing is less fiery here than it was a month earlier in Boston, he has added the third solo chorus with its engaging and subdued attack, giving literal credence to the the tune’s “goin’ down slow” theme.
Bloomfield then counts off “Another Country.” Only weeks away from recording the piece’s initial tracks in the studio, the band here is tight and energized. The slight ritard played by the horns in the Boston version of “Country” has been smoothed out, and Marcus Doubleday can be heard interjecting attractive embellishments over the rhythm during Gravenites two choruses. Then the tune moves into its free section.
In Boston, the din was largely dominated by Bloomfield’s furious guitar runs. Here, however, the band appears to have reached a sort of improvisatory critical mass with all the players contributing fully to the “confusion.” Though we don’t hear the full effect of the section because the tape is unfortunately edited, by the time Buddy brings the band back into rhythmic focus, the Flag is sending up a mighty, banshee-like wail. Bloomfield sounds as if he is using a slide to create careening metallic glissandi while Fonfara and the horn players merge to evoke the sonance of a tortured fire siren.
accompanied now by Fonfara’s organ, restore order – this time using an odd polka
“oom-pah-pah” beat. Bloomfield emerges in jazz solo mode and the audience
responds with wild cheers and applause. The dissonant passage must certainly
have played as a “psychedelic” moment for the San Francisco crowd.
Michael again solos for 64 bars, adding a sprightly little melody toward the end of the passage, a theme that would also appear in the studio version of “Country.”
Buddy then juices the rhythm and moves the piece into heavy rock mode and Michael takes another 40 bars before bringing Nick and the horns back in for the final verse. Bloomfield’s entire solo lasts 104 bars, a bit shorter than its duration in Boston, and with its two sections’ length’s reversed.
The coda comes after Nick’s declaiming over a vamp peppered with Doubleday’s trumpet runs. The final booming chord is allowed to decay as Bloomfield tosses of a series of runs before Buddy closes the piece with a resounding thump of his kick drum. As the audience applauds, Miles checks his mic for the next number.
The final tune that has been preserved from that evening was the one that comprised the B-side of the Flag’s 45 rpm Columbia release. “Over-Lovin’ You,” written by Goldberg and Bloomfield, had been part of the band’s Monterey set but hadn’t been performed in Boston (as far as is known). Taken at a breakneck tempo, the pop song is a feature for Buddy Miles and has no solos. The ebullient drummer draws out the tune’s concluding vamp for 52 intense bars before Michael brings it to a close with a series of arpeggiated chords. “Yeah!” someone in the audience cheers as the Winterland crowd applauds.
These shows from the Fillmore and the Winterland capture the Electric Flag at the height of their considerable powers. Though they would give stellar performances over the next five months, they would never again have the artistic and musical cohesiveness they exhibit here.