Now Spinning: Live at Bill Graham’s Fillmore West

Recorded live during the height of the San Francisco rock scene at the historic Fillmore West, this album captures the magical collaborative spirit that represents the best of the late sixties San Francisco scene. Starting with the front cover, no specific artist is credited, with all the musicians who performed listed along with concert photos of the three most well-known, Nick Gravenites, Mike Bloomfield and Taj Mahal. After the what-could-have-been potential of the Electric Flag imploded to scattered ashes, Bloomfield and his former Flag-bandmate Gravenites booked two weekends of shows together at the Fillmore under the mouthful moniker, Mike Bloomfield, Nick Gravenites, Mark Naftalin & Friends. Naftalin had just left his post as keyboardist of the Paul Butterfield Blues Band’s classic era, and that core is joined by horns along with John Kahn on bass, soon to become Jerry Garcia’s longtime solo career companion, as well as drummer Bob Jones and keyboardist Ira Kamin, who would go on to Brewer & Shipley.

From the lineup featuring a spectacular amalgamation of talent to the loose jam setting and surprise appearances from Taj Mahal and Jesse Ed Davis, the album beautifully captures the Fillmore’s immeasurable anything-can-happen spontaneity. On an even more telling and fascinating note, the material is recorded from two weekends of shows in February, 1969. One weekend saw the band opening for Chuck Berry, while the next saw them headlining with the classic Clarence White era Byrds lineup I just recently wrote about as an opening act, which later produced their Live at the Fillmore album. It reflects very well on Bill Graham that a black artist like Berry, who played segregated venues earlier in his career, was paired with (at that moment) more popular younger white musicians like Bloomfield who exposed Berry to an expanding younger fanbase while also treating him as the headliner he deserved to be.

What a time to be living in San Francisco, with the ability to see Clarence White, Mike Bloomfield and Chuck Berry at the Fillmore in the same week, to see the birth of country rock and creator of rock ‘n’ roll right in front of your eyes, and somehow even more impressively, Mike Bloomfield. Of all the sixties era guitar players, from the legends above to local heroes Jerry Garcia and Carlos Santana and even including Eric Clapton and the English crew, no one could outplay Mike Bloomfield. While Eric Clapton was mortified by his awkward collaborations with blues legends Sonny Boy Williamson II and Howlin’ Wolf during this era, Mike Bloomfield fit so well into Muddy Waters band that Muddy called him his son. Bloomfield’s magic may not have lasted forever, with the tragedy of his decline culminating with death from a heroin overdose at just thirty seven, but in the mid-to-late sixties, no one could match the awe-inspiring fire of his playing. The electric guitar has never sounded more powerful playing the blues than on the first two Paul Butterfield Blues Band albums, and Bloomfield’s popularity and notoriety only increased through his studio work backing Dylan’s electric transition. Bloomfield’s critical and popular peak arrived with the success of the Super Session album, featuring his old Dylan compadre Al Kooper, former Electric Flag bandmates and Stephen Stills, who had to jump in when Bloomfield quit due to extreme insomnia. In many ways, Live at Bill Graham’s Fillmore West (along with The Live Adventures of Mike Bloomfield & Al Kooper) serve as live counterparts to Super Session, featuring Bloomfield and this group of friends jamming each weekend away.

Though the humble and nervous Bloomfield refused to list his name on the cover as the artist, this is very much a Mike Bloomfield album. Musically, the band is much closer to Electric Flag than the fiery blues of Butterfield or open-ended jamming of the Kooper collaborations, but with the horn section taking more of a supportive backseat than in Electric Flag. Mike’s playing is intense, improvisational and dominant throughout, supported by a band as influenced by the soul and funk music of the era as much as the blues. His solo on ‘Blues from the Westside’ has to be heard to be believed, on par with Butterfield’s ‘East-West’ and the Bloomfield/Kooper ‘His Holy Modal Majesty’ as the most electrifying playing of Bloomfield’s career. ‘It’s About Time’ and ‘Love Got Me’ are fast-paced funky jams that feel like what Electric Flag should have been, while Taj Mahal and Jesse Ed Davis elevate ‘One More Mile To Go’ with raucous energy before Bloomfield takes over the final few minutes with another triumphant solo. Despite being a near one-off band of friends casually jamming, the performances here are undeniably tighter and more focused than on The Live Adventures of Mike Bloomfield & Al Kooper, while Bloomfield’s playing in a soul/funk setting here far outshines the output of Electric Flag.

For whatever the reasons, I suppose simply the lack of the big names compared to some of Bloomfield’s other collaborations, this album is a forgotten one in the Bloomfield/Electric Flag canon. You won’t find it on Spotify but you do need it on vinyl. If you can’t track it down in the rock or blues sections of your local record store, you can pick up a copy on Discogs for surprisingly cheap.

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