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The Electric Flag

Fresh from the PAUL BUTTERFIELD BLUES BAND and eager to engineer a situation more accommodating to his retiring nature, precocious Chicago-born lead guitarist Mike Bloomfield gathered together a supergroup of like-minded San Franciscan-based souls; including fellow “Highway 61 Revisited” alum Harvey Brooks (bass) and Barry Goldberg (keyboards), fellow BUTTERFIELD graduate Nick Gravenites (vocals/keyboards), synth pioneer Paul Beaver, charismatic drummer Buddy Miles, Marcus Doubleday (trumpet/percussion), Peter Strazza (tenor sax) and Herbie Rich (keyboards/saxophone). And under the banner of the ELECTRIC FLAG, AN AMERICAN MUSIC BAND, the ensemble went about patenting Mike’s ambitious montage of blues, soul, jazz and psychedelia. That it was conceived spring-summer ’67 in the shape of an original motion picture sound track, THE TRIP {*7} – one which Playboy magazine subsequently named score of the year – to Jack Nicholson’s pre-Easy Rider cause célèbre, only underlined its zeitgeist credentials.
Dispatched the same month the band made their live entrance at the Monterey International Pop Festival, the soundtrack also served as something of a sounding board for their 1968 studio debut. And while some of it was actually dubbed over footage of the INTERNATIONAL SUBMARINE BAND (the fledgling country-rock vehicle of GRAM PARSONS), Mike’s vision of American Music often came across as more schizophrenic than cosmic, swerving crazily between fuzz-heavy garage rock, electronic freak-out, trad jazz and neo-prog symphony. Main theme `Peter’s Trip’ represented that vision at its grandest; all harpsichord flourish and brass fanfare, while Beaver (later of BEAVER & KRAUSE fame, and a man who also sessioned on Krysztof Komeda’s soundtrack to the Oscar-winning horror, Rosemary’s Baby) weighed in with some wild synth improv on `Flash, Bam, Pow’, itself subsequently used in the aforesaid Easy Rider. But it was difficult to avoid the impression that Bloomfield, at heart, was something of a purist, and his grand plan really came off when they binned the lysergic excess and simply let the constituent parts fuse naturally (on the propulsive BOOKER T.-like jam, `Fine Jung Thing’) or else melt into each other, as on the gorgeous `Green And Gold’, one of the few tracks where his much vaunted use of a full horn section (a lead Butterfield was to follow) really came into its own.
The following year, the same team – with the exception of Michael Fonfara (stepping in for Goldberg) – finally released their much-anticipated sophomore set, A LONG TIME COMIN’ {*7}; a near Top 30 entry. The outfit’s brassy blues excursions were best sampled on originals, `Groovin’ Is Easy’, `You Don’t Realize’ and `Sittin’ In Circles’, though polar-opposite covers of trad piece `Wine’ and HOWLIN’ WOLF’s `Killing Floor’, were pivotal to the times.
MIKE BLOOMFIELD jumped ship thereafter to form the collaborative (and hugely popular) “Super Sessions” project alongside AL KOOPER and STEPHEN STILLS.
With Nick Gravenites and Buddy Miles now at the helm, The ELECTRIC FLAG limped on for a further six months, finally disbanding in ‘69 after the release of the part-eponymous THE ELECTRIC FLAG: AN AMERICAN MUSIC BAND (1968) {*6} third set. Hoshal Wright was the guitarist with the unenvious task of filling the boots of his predecessor, and for the most part he succeeded, although their blues-rock sound was drowned out by the saxophones of Stemsy Hunter (who featured on previous set), Virgil Gonsalves and Terry Clements. Promoted to singer on a cover of BOBBY HEBB’s `Sunny’, drummer Buddy Miles was much more prominent; as was Herbie Rich, who sang lead on `Qualified’.
Drugs, egos and inner strife were solely to blame for the group’s fall from grace, and whilst BLOOMFIELD was carving out his solo career, The ELECTRIC FLAG lowered their mast. However, side-stepping other commitments elsewhere, Atlantic Records convinced the band to reconvene. Putting any differences aside, Bloomfield, Gravenites, Miles, Goldberg, plus new man, Roger “Jellyroll” Troy (vocals/bass), raised the ‘Flag for a one-off 1974 set, THE BAND KEPT PLAYING {*4}. Despite the quintet’s impressive kudos (and the production values of Jerry Wexler), the record bombed both critically and commercially; only possibly, `Every Now And Then’ and `Earthquake Country’, saved it from further panning.
On the back of this dismal set, Bloomfield teamed up once more with Goldberg, forming the workmanlike KGB, before the guitar legend delivered a string of trad-blues sets later in the 70s. Tragically, the guitarist was to meet with an untimely death, via a drug overdose, on February 15, 1981.
The ELECTRIC FLAG had a last flight of fancy when Gravenites, Goldberg and Stemsy Hunter re-united for a Monterey Pop Festival 40th anniversary gig at the county fairgrounds, late July 2007; they were augmented on stage by friends from The BLUES PROJECT and TOWER OF POWER.
© MC Strong 1994-2009/GRD-LCS-BG // rev-up MCS Aug2019

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