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

By David Dann

Right: The Carousel Ballroom (the Fillmore West) as it appeared in 1971. Unknown photographer


Playing the Carousel
April 21, 1968; Carousel Ballroom, San Francisco, CA
Soundboard recording

This performance likely comes from a casual Sunday afternoon show at the Carousel Ballroom. The Electric Flag shared the stage with Erma Franklin, Aretha’s sister, and – with the exception of Michael Bloomfield – provided backup for her during her set.

The performance opens with Buddy Miles counting off Stevie Wonder’s “Uptight.” Though the horns are a bit off mic, the sound is excellent (after some early fluctuations in the mix as the Carousel’s sound man adjusts volumes).

The tune’s tempo is a bit slower than it was four months earlier at the Fillmore, but the arrangement is essentially identical with the 2-bar horn riff and the 6-bar shuffle interlude between Buddy’s verses. Herbie Rich is now clearly the band’s organist, offering accompaniment that is closer to the jazz sound of Jimmy Smith than the more rock-oriented playing of Goldberg or Fonfara. The rhythm section is tight as Bloomfield comps Cropper-style, dropping out momentarily to tweak his Fender Twin in the first verse. Only the horns sound somewhat disorganized, running through their parts a bit too loosely. Aural evidence reveals that the band had invited baritone player Virgil Gonsalves and an unknown trumpet player to sit in with Doubleday, Strazza and newcomer Stemzie Hunter and that was doubtless the reason for their less than perfect ensemble sound.

After the first verse, Michael jumps into his solo. Though a bit shorter and less pyrotechnic than his Fillmore contribution, his 40 bars are driving and culminate on a high G plucked and held for six full measures. After the interlude, Buddy returns for the final verse – and the band has a surprise in store for the audience.

Miles shouts, “Feelin’ good!” and drums unaccompanied for a few bars on the tune’s boogaloo beat before Michael and Harvey Brooks return with the bass line from the Beatles’ 1965 hit “Daytripper.” Buddy sings the opening lines to the tune and then riffs phrases as the band vamps on the melody. Bloomfield contributes a brief solo and the Flag builds to an intense crescendo as it returns to the refrain from “Uptight” and the coda. The interjection of the tune feels like a serendipitous moment though it must have been planned – perhaps the result of something that occurred during a loose run through of the tune in rehearsal. In any case, it’s one of the few examples of the Flag’s performing – however briefly – a purely rock tune.

In full blow-them-away mode, the band moves right into the next tune without pause – it’s Junior Parker’s “Drivin’ Wheel.” Michael peppers Buddy’s vocal lines with amped-up lead fills while Herbie Rich, though somewhat down in the mix, backs them with huge, sustained chords on his B-3. The horns run through their ensemble parts, suffering a bit from the loose contributions of the guest trumpet and baritone. After two verses from Miles, Bloomfield moves out front.

He takes one chorus with just the rhythm section and then another with the horns riffing behind him. At the end of Michael’s second solo chorus, the Flag comes to a complete stop – and the listener expects to hear Bloomfield let loose a fusillade of notes before being rejoined by the band. But something completely unexpected occurs – there is silence for a full six seconds.

Then Bloomfield quietly plays a brief line, and Buddy responds with a moan. Michael replies, and the two trade licks for a minute with uncanny precision. Then Buddy begins to improvise lyrics and Peter Strazza’s tenor is briefly heard in the exchange. After a series of flourishes by the full band, Buddy again begins to moan and Michael echoes his utterance precisely using his volume control. After more improvised lyrics and flourishes, Buddy returns to the tune with the now-familiar “Every time she walks …!” and takes it to the coda.

The unique exchange between guitarist and vocalist – something added to “Drivin’ Wheel” since the December Fillmore show – has clearly been sketched out in advance, but it retains a spontaneous feel due to Buddy’s penchant for deviating from the script.

While the audience applauds, Flag members can be heard discussing the next tune. The juggernaut suddenly comes to a halt as they spend a full minute deciding what to play. Michael suggests “that blues in F-minor, you know, ’It’s About Time’,” referring to the Nick Gravenites tune, but the band instead settles on a piece that must have surprised the audience – Miles Davis’ closer “The Theme.”

No doubt selected by the horn players who were eager to provide some solo space for their guests and themselves, the jazz tune, while still a 12-bar blues, was an unusual choice even for the Flag. Though the San Francisco audience was used to seeing jazz groups share the stage with rock acts and was familiar with Thelonious Monk, Charles Lloyd, Miles Davis and others, there was very little crossover in terms of material performed. That the Electric Flag would choose to play a Davis original in a pure jazz style was indicative of the depth of the band’s musical skill and knowledge – and characteristic of its artistic fearlessness.

That said, the Flag’s rendition of “The Theme” is – as jazz performances go – not terribly good.

After a loose statement of the melody lead by Doubleday’s trumpet for two choruses, Marcus is the first soloist. The other horns coalesce in a riff behind the first half of his statement while he develops a clean, coherent line. After they drop out, he seems to run out of steam despite brief moments reminiscent of his fine Spanish-tinged contributions to “The Trip” soundtrack. Marcus’ tone is light and airy, though, and he is perhaps the best of the horn soloists.

Organist Herbie Rich is clearly the most comfortable with the style, sounding a bit like Jimmy McGriff in his rumbling, Leslie-driven accompaniment. Michael Bloomfield comps using his best “pseudo-jazz” technique and Buddy Miles can’t resist slipping into a shuffle beat, favoring snare over ride cymbal.

Michael is next up, beginning his solo on an A-flat and gamely running scales that evoke his improvisations on “Work Song” from the second Butterfield album (another minor blues in F). He builds in intensity for six choruses, playing flatted fifths and seconds while worrying the rhythm in classic Bloomfield fashion. His sound here foreshadows his playing with Al Kooper a month later on the date that would result in “Super Session.”

The second trumpet player jumps in with his solo on the heels of Michael’s sixth chorus, appearing to almost cut the guitarist off. With a distinctive sound quite different from Doubleday’s, this is clearly not Marcus as some have thought. The Flag’s trumpet player has obviously been influenced by Miles Davis, while this soloist sounds as if he favors Roy Eldridge’s hotter, more staccato sound. His chops are quite good, and though his sound is older and bit blatty, he runs through his six choruses with an engaging élan.

Herbie Rich then takes center stage and makes full use of his Hammond B-3’s expressive range. He solos using his right hand for nearly three choruses before he holds a high F and then switches the B-3 off and on, causing the note to “bend.” It’s a trick he employs in nearly all his solos and it lends a guitar-like fluidity to the normally fixed pitches of the keyboard. In his fifth and final chorus, Herbie opens all the stops and plays a series of extended chords that demonstrates his mastery of the idiom. He would clearly be right at home backing Eddie “Lockjaw” Davis on some after-hours gig in a Newark tavern.

The next soloist is guest Virgil Gonsalves. A baritone sax and flute player whose name has also been spelled Gonzales or Gonsales, he would go on to become a member of the second edition of the Electric Flag and then later part of the Buddy Miles Express. Born in 1931, Gonsalves was the old man onstage that afternoon and indeed had been a jazz player of note around the Bay Area for more than a decade. He had recorded several albums with his own sextet for small labels in the late ’50s and had led the first modern big band to emerge from San Francisco after touring with the bands of Tex Beneke and Alvino Rey. Gonsalves was an accomplished and respected jazz player – so what was he doing playing with a bunch of rock ’n’ roll kids?

Like many jazz musicians of his generation, Virgil had developed a heroin habit. By the late ’60s, he had acquired a reputation for being a severe junkie. It’s likely that by that time he gravitated to wherever the drug action was, and there was plenty of it on the contemporary rock scene. So there he was, sitting in with the Electric Flag, blowing blues changes on a rock band’s rendition of a Miles Davis tune.

While Gonsalves’ chops sound a bit flabby, his deep, Mulligan-inspired tone lends gravity to his performance. He runs the changes for three choruses with nimble backing from Bloomfield, Rich, Brooks and Miles, and then evokes the late John Coltrane with a ferocious free passage at the start of his fourth. Buddy kicks the tempo into double-time with fast triplets in Virgil’s fifth and sixth choruses and the other horns riff as the baritone player repeats a phrase to build the intensity. The band then falls back into straight time as Gonsalves finishes his final 12 bars to the applause of the audience.

At this point, the Flag seems uncertain how to end the tune. The horns play a riff initiated by the second trumpet player for a full chorus and then another as Michael adds fine accents over quiet rhythm. He continues for another 4 bars and then can be heard shouting, “Play the melody once!” The horns then return and run through the theme to “The Theme” not once but twice as Bloomfield contributes fills and then brings the piece to an end on a final F-minor chord and flourish.

Cheers and applause can be heard as the Flag once again discusses the next tune.

“’Over-Lovin’ You!’” suggests Michael, but there are no takers. “Let Nick decide,” he says.

Somebody says “Groovin’?” but then Nick picks “Goin’ Down Slow.”

“Slow blues in A,” says Michael for the benefit of the guest horn players, and they clearly do not sound enthusiastic. But Bloomfield kicks off the St. Louis Jimmy tune anyway, using a characteristic lick that leads into the turnaround, and the band hesitantly joins in.

Michael’s intonation is way off as he plays a number of stretched notes in the tune’s opening bars. “Wow!” he comments unhappily. The horns, lead by Doubleday, stumble into an accompanying riff and sound ragged and lost for the first few bars. Nick then starts to sing the opening chorus and Michael plays a riff for a few bars, clearly demonstrating the bass line for Harvey Brooks. Though Brooks has performed the piece many, many times by this point and knows his part well, he obligingly picks up Bloomfield’s line.

Things begin to gel after a few bars and the Flag sounds more confident as Michael moves out front with a series of stinging fills. After Nick’s second chorus, however, the tape suddenly cuts and then resumes with an instrumental from the Erma Franklin set that sounds a bit like Albert King’s “Crosscut Saw.” Unfortunately, the remainder of the Electric Flag’s performance is lost and the guitarist who joins the Flag for Franklin’s portion of the show is not Bloomfield.

The Carousel appearance captures the Flag at a moment when the band was beginning to come apart from the pressures of commercial expectations, personality conflicts and drugs. Despite its uneven performance, however, the group displays its exceptional drive and musicianship – and its penchant for experimentation.