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

By David Dann

Right: Bloomfield solos during the Flag performance at the Santa Clara Pop Festival.
Peter Martin photo

 

The last festival
May 18, 1968; Santa Clara Pop Festival, Santa Clara Fairgrounds, San Jose, CA
Private recording
 

The Electric Flag’s last performance at a large festival occurred in mid-May 1968. An outdoor, two-day extravaganza, the event – also known as the Northern California Folk Rock Festival – featured numerous prominent bands including the Doors, Big Brother and the Holding Company with Janis Joplin, the Jefferson Airplane and Eric Burdon and the Animals.

The Flag appeared on Saturday afternoon, playing to a huge crowd basking in the warm sun on the Fairground’s vast lawn. Someone in the audience recorded the band’s set and captured the Flag in an ebullient mood, rising to the occasion with considerable verve despite the band’s impending demise. The recording, as it has come down to us, has a few dropout glitches and suffers from distracting crowd noise, but the overall sound is sufficient to convey the quality of the Flag’s performance.

The recording opens with the festival’s emcee introducing the band in carnival-barker fashion. The Flag then launches into a new Buddy Miles composition, a show-stopper called “Soul Searchin’.” Essentially a boogaloo vamp on blues changes with an extended turnaround, the piece features Buddy’s powerhouse trap work, some Stax-style horn charts and Herbie Rich’s jazzy organ sound. The ensemble works through two choruses in classic Flag-juggernaut fashion and then Bloomfield moves out front.

He lopes through his first chorus with a fusillade of blues licks and is nearly drowned out by the band’s huge sound. Switching to his Les Paul’s lead pickup, Michael then cranks up and continues soloing, venturing into modal territory for a bar or two after the horns drop out. The Flag vamps on the tonic as Bloomfield builds to a flourish and then Buddy takes over.

Miles beats out the boogaloo beat alone for a few bars and then each instrument in turn comes back into the mix in classic R&B fashion. Michael bemusedly comments, “You got that soul feeling?” as Harvey Brooks’ bass joins the drums. Herbie Rich (or is it Stemzie Hunter?) begins a barely audible narration, introducing each instrument in turn – it seems his mic may have been off at the start of the interlude and the soundman only now turns him up. “A little louder, a little bit louder!” he earnestly commands.

The band then punctuates the beat with a repeated dominant chord for 12 measures followed by a brief drum solo from Buddy before the final flourish. Applause erupts from the crowd as the Flag moves right into its next tune.

The fanfare opening to “Groovin’ Is Easy” is greeted with cheers and whistles – the California audience is clearly familiar with the Electric Flag’s signature number. With the exception of the organ part, the tune is just as the Flag has played it over the past ten months. Here, however, Herbie Rich eschews Barry Goldberg’s syncopated accompaniment in favor of big, Leslie-powered chords. Bloomfield plucks a high A for a full 10 bars before bringing the piece to a resounding close with the familiar fanfare.

Tuning problems have become apparent in the last moments of “Groovin’” – Michael is a bit flat – and a quick tune-up session follows the piece. One of the band members asks the audience, “Ah, can ya’ll hear the voices?” – good sound balance was always an issue for the Electric Flag. A dialogue ensues between the crowd and the band member – Stemzie Hunter again? – and when he asks, “Is the band too loud?” he receives an emphatic chorus of “No!”

“This is a tune, uh, dedicated to Jimi the Fox,” says Michael Bloomfield by way of introducing “Hey Joe,” the Flag’s next selection. Michael has clearly begun to think of Hendrix as something of a musical trickster by this point and, just a few weeks earlier, he had recorded a blues with Barry Goldberg dedicated to Hendrix with the same ambiguous title “Jimi the Fox.”

This is the first recorded example we have of “Hey Joe” since the band debuted it in March at the Electric Factory in Philadelphia and it is again achingly slow. After a false start – “Wait a minute!” says Buddy – Bloomfield counts the tune off again and begins his guitar line as Rich’s organ offers sympathetic support. Right away it is clear that Michael is still out of tune. Undaunted, Buddy charges ahead with the vocal.

The tune begins quietly with Buddy singing over the rhythm section alone. Bloomfield’s guitar acts as the melodic vehicle that moves the song forward despite the fact that his A and low E strings are decidedly flat. Based on a simple 8-bar progression that is repeated to form each 16-bar verse, “Hey Joe” describes a crime of passion and ensuing escape to Mexico. Buddy takes full advantage of the lyrics' pathos as the horns flood in on the third verse and the band builds to an Ennio Morricone-like crescendo after the fourth. Michael begins his solo and climbs ever higher on the neck as the horns swell underneath him. Then the tape becomes garbled.

When the recording resumes, the band has dropped back and Buddy is crooning the last verses. He builds in intensity as the horns come back in and Michael’s guitar – now more in tune – punctuates the rhythm with sonorous bass notes. Miles literally screams his way through the final verse and the tune finishes with an earth-shaking flourish.

A lengthy pause follows during which the crowd can be clearly heard – the tape appears to have been made somewhere out in front of the bandstand – and Bloomfield runs a few fun slow blues licks and then says, “Here we go – a shuffle into the singing,” and then appears to say, “What’s your problem?” He starts a standard guitar shuffle rhythm and then stops for some reason, resuming with an opening lick for a much slower blues. Rich and Miles gamely join in and Michael switches to chords briefly to punch up the tempo.

Bloomfield plays one of his standard mid-tempo solos for a chorus and then drops in fills between Gravenites’ phrases as the horns join in. The tune, called “Sweet Home Chicago” on the various bootleg issues of the concert, is really a variation on Robert Johnson’s 1936 original. After singing Johnson’s first verse, Nick continues with verses of his own creation. Michael begins his solo after the third verse, and builds to the familiar Albert King stop in his second chorus. This time, instead of a flurry of notes over Miles’ bass drum, Buddy drops out and Michael holds a single stretched note to create a Hendrix-like moment of sustained feedback. The band comes back in after two bars and Bloomfield finishes out the chorus with a series of hot runs, sounding like he’s concluding his solo.

But it’s a classic B.B. King-inspired feint. Instead of finishing his statement, Michael continues, playing softly for two more choruses as the band drops way down in volume. At the end of the second, he repeats the tonic note A for the final two bars of the turnaround and builds to an intense third chorus, only to repeat the stop after its first four bars. This time he doesn’t play a lick – there’s silence for nearly the full two bars until Michael jumps in at the last moment with a dissonant cluster and the band returns to finish out the chorus.

Nick comes back in, singing a verse about the various soulful neighborhoods in the Windy City before finishing with Johnson’s original opening lines. The tune ends with cheers and applause from the crowd and someone on the bandstand can be heard to say caustically, “You gotta be in Nick’s band to buy a solo.”

Without pause, the Flag jumps right into “Killing Floor.” Michael opens with a fine solo for one chorus and Nick follows with his usual two verses. Bloomfield then steps up for three hurried choruses – the tempo seems a bit rushed in this version of Howlin’ Wolf’s classic. The horns come in with the staccato “Crosscut Saw” rhythm on the third chorus and Michael squeezes out the Albert King lick before finishing his solo way up on the neck.

Nick sings two more verses and then the band vamps for a lengthy 48 bars while Stemzie Hunter solos on alto. Bloomfield comps furiously, using numerous chord variations as Hunter gets a chance to display his R&B chops. Then Nick comes back in with the final verse and the tune closes on the turnaround.

Without skipping a beat Buddy Miles brings the band in on “Texas,” and it’s clear that he owns the tune. The tempo is languorous and the horns offer lush backing as Bloomfield and Miles engage in their musical pas-de-deux.

After two verses, Michael takes what is arguably his best blues solo of the afternoon. Using his Les Paul’s rhythm pickup, he spins out beautifully melodic variations on his standard phrases for his first chorus and then moves up the neck for his second. For the third, he opens with a purring note created with his volume control and then drops back to solo very quietly over Rich’s fat organ accompaniment. “Wow!” one audience member can be heard to say. He builds back up in volume and finishes the chorus with a torrent of licks before the band again pulls back and Buddy returns. Unusually restrained, Miles sings quietly while Michael shadows his phrases – Buddy is clearly setting the stage for a dramatic exchange between himself and the leader. But – just as things start to get interesting – the tape stops. One can only imagine what extremes Miles and Bloomfield went to on “Texas” that afternoon in San Jose.

When the tape resumes, we hear the final moments of the free portion of “Another County.” Unlike earlier versions of the piece where the segment concluded with a wild cacophonous combination of guitar, horns and organ, here Bloomfield quietly noodles over ethereal chords from Herbie Rich. He then strikes a repeated bell-like chord as Miles creates shimmering backing with cymbals and then brings the tune back to tempo with the 3/4-time, oom-pah-pah kicker.

Michael quietly solos over the rhythm as the crowd applauds appreciatively. He improvises for a full 48 bars, exploring the tune’s harmonic possibilities, but isn’t quite as adventurous as in previous versions of “Another Country.” The horns join him midway through with a riff that is new and jazz-based, and then Buddy hammers his snare to jack up the tempo. Bloomfield continues to solo for another 20 bars and, though somewhat down in the mix, builds to a high A that is repeated for an intense eight bars.

The horn fanfare follows and then Gravenites returns with the vocal for the final verse. The band vamps as Nick declaims over the ills afflicting the country and then closes the tune with a final extended chord. The audience responds enthusiastically with raucous cheers and applause and the Electric Flag moves on to its closer.

Harvey Brooks’ big bass sound walks the jump rhythm of “Wine” as Nick sings the good-time lyric and Michael gamely joins in on the refrain. Then it’s Michael’s fiery solo over Herbie Rich’s great comping for five quick choruses – the last two of which consist almost entirely of another repeated high A. The band then drops down and Nick returns to expostulate on the benefits of the grape. Everybody joins in on the chorus and Bloomfield gets in a final sizzling cadenza that finishes with a sustained note before the tune comes to a good-natured end. Applause and cheers erupt as the emcee shouts “The Electric Flag!”

Aside from a recording of the Flag at the Carousel Ballroom from later that same day (which is not included with these reviews), the San Jose tape is the last recorded example of the band that we have. Despite the impending departure of Michael Bloomfield, the drugs and the various personality conflicts, the Flag could still put on a bang-up show. Few in the audience were probably aware that they would be among the last to see this version of the band perform.

© 2010 David Dann