Jimi Hendrix - guitar, vocals; Billy Cox - bass, vocals; Buddy Miles - drums, vocals
The only LP of completely live Jimi Hendrix recordings to be released during his lifetime, the Band Of Gypsys album found the iconoclastic guitarist with a new rhythm section and soaring to new creative heights. Recorded on the second night of a New Year's Eve and New Year's Day engagement at the Fillmore East, these performances gave Hendrix the opportunity to showcase new material and fulfill a contractual obligation simultaneously. The circumstances surrounding these shows are now well known; Hendrix had just successfully defended himself against drug possession charges in Toronto and now, due to a contract signed before he was known, was being forced to deliver an album of original material to Ed Chalpin, an entrepreneur determined to exploit Hendrix's success.
Despite the troubling circumstances, the Band Of Gypsys' performances would go down in history as some of the greatest of Hendrix' career. Showcasing new material that he had been developing in the studio and featuring plenty of spontaneous jamming, this new music found Hendrix inspired by the solid funky bass of his old friend Billy Cox and the extraordinary gut-bucket drumming of Buddy Miles. This new rhythm section, which had been working in the studio with Hendrix for several months, contributed hard funk and R&B elements to Hendrix's groundbreaking style. The lyric direction was also changing, displaying a social consciousness previously unexplored. Hendrix was clearly pushing the boundaries of his music and in songs like "Machine Gun," hitting emotional heights in his guitar playing that would never quite be duplicated again.
This composite is assembled from several different recordings made during the fourth and final Fillmore East concert on New Year's Day 1970. Following Bill Graham's introduction, the Band Of Gypsys kick things off with "Stone Free." Briefly released as a single but then quickly withdrawn, this live version is an altogether different animal and serves as a warm-up exercise, featuring nearly 10 minutes of improvisation, including Hendrix toying with "Little Drummer Boy." The next three songs will be most familiar, as all three were utilized on the original 1970 Band Of Gypsys LP. First up is Buddy Miles' biggest hit, "Them Changes," but it is the two songs that follow that exemplify Hendrix's new direction, "Message To Love" and "Power Of Soul." Both songs contain a deep funky groove previously unexplored with the Experience. Unlike anything he had written before, both reflect a social and spiritual awareness in the lyrics. In direct contrast to the psychedelic rock and enigmatic imagery that defined his songs with the Experience, these songs are direct hard-edged funk anthems conveying the need for love and compassion during turbulent times. Another new number, "Earth Blues," follows with a similar sentiment, but it is the next two numbers that contain the most extraordinary musicianship of this performance, beginning with "Machine Gun."
Although less cohesive and even more demented than the version selected for the album, "Machine Gun" is an emotional tour-de-force that best displays why Hendrix was a peerless guitarist. The searing emotional wallop of the improvisations, the sophisticated technique, and the sheer spontaneous artistry that Hendrix displays here is frighteningly intense. It's no wonder Hendrix so enamored Vietnam vets, as here he sonically recreates their horrifying experiences in the jungles of Vietnam to a staggering degree. He concludes "Machine Gun" with the disturbing death imagery of "Taps," which punctuates this truly astounding performance.
The "Voodoo Child (Slight Return)" that follows is introduced as the Black Panther's National Anthem. It may be far shorter than the nearly-20-minute meltdown that it would later become, but the sheer compressed energy in this more concise version is infinitely more intense. This may even be the single greatest example of Buddy Miles' fancy footwork ever recorded. Drummers are encouraged to listen to his bass drum work in particular here, which is nothing short of super-human, propelling Hendrix into the stratosphere. This song is also notable for Billy Cox, whose bass playing is superb. Rarely the case, Cox can be heard quite clearly on this recording, especially during the pummeling last few minutes of this number. Although not as exploratory as other live versions, it has rarely been equaled for sheer intensity. "Voodoo Child" segues directly into the second Buddy Miles number of the set, "We Gotta Live Together." Essentially a meandering jam (nearly 17 minutes) with overlong call-and-response sequences between Miles and the audience, this may be the low point of the set, until the last several minutes, when Hendrix suddenly goes into hyperdive and the group follows at breakneck speed. Only the beginning and (thankfully) the end of this song was captured on the soundboard direct recordings, so it is seamlessly patched with a high quality room recording, giving listeners the ability to hear the entire performance. In this case, the room sequence may even be preferable as it better captures the call-and-response interaction between the band and the audience. Catering to requests from the audience, the set concludes with a quick romp through "Wild Thing," which seems obligatory and worlds apart from everything that preceded it.
-Written by Alan Bershaw
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