Posts Tagged ‘Band of Gypsies’

Jimi Hendrix “Live at the Fillmore” It was 50 years ago this year that the iconic “Band of Gypsys” performances were immortalized on acetate.

On January 28th, 1970, at Madison Square Garden, Jimi Hendrix spoke his last words as a member of Band Of Gypsys: “That’s what happens when Earth fucks with space.”

He then left the stage, stumbling under the effects of either exhaustion or a psychedelic mickey, possibly slipped to him by his manager, Mike Jeffrey. A mere two songs into their set at the Winter Peace Concert, the show was over – as was the band. But just a month earlier, when the group had played four sets at the Fillmore East, things had seemed much more promising.

Consisting of Hendrix and the rhythm section of Billy Cox (bass) and Buddy Miles (drums), Band Of Gypsies evolved out of Gypsy Sun & Rainbows, the larger group Hendrix had assembled to play Woodstock. Cox was an old army buddy from Hendrix’s time in the 101st Airborne and Miles, late of the Electric Flag, had crossed paths with Hendrix at Monterey Pop a few years earlier. Hendrix had often bemoaned his lack of engagement with black audience so perhaps an all-black group would be the ticket, as well as allowing him to realize a funkier musical vision. As he told Al Aronowitz in an interview in the New York Post that ran January 2nd, 1970: “Now I want to bring it down to earth. I want to get back to the blues, because that’s what I am.”

Hendrix’s nagging insecurities about his voice also came into play. “I’d rather just play,” he told Aronowitz,”I never sang before. In England they made me sing, but Buddy has the right voice, he’s going to do the singing from now on.” According to his engineer Eddie Kramer in the April 2020 issue of Mojo Magazine, Hendrix came to regret that decision when it came to selecting the tracks and mixing the Band of Gypsys album. “We get to one of Buddy’s long rants where he goes on and on and on, and I could just see Jimi’s head with his hat on get lower and lower, and finally he folds his arms and rests his head down on the console. And he says, ‘Ahhh Buddy, I wish you would shut the fuck up.’”

With much of the impetus for the Fillmore East concerts coming from the need to deliver an album to Capitol Records, an obligation dating back to 1965, Hendrix might have rushed the gig a bit. He admitted as much in an April 1970 interview with Melody Maker’s Keith Altham, saying “I wasn’t too satisfied with the Band of Gypsys album. If it had been up to me I would have never put it out. From a musician’s point of view it was not a good recording and I was out of tune on a few things. Not enough preparation went into it and it came out a bit ‘grizzly’ – we all felt shaky. The thing was we owed the record company an album and they were pushing us – so here it is.”

And now here it is 50 years later and the Experience Hendrix promotional machine is wasting no time celebrating an album that was definitely the weakest of the four released during his lifetime. There’s also Songs For Groovy Children, a box set they released last year, which included all four concerts the Band of Gypsys played on December 31st 1969 and January 1st 1970. That set proved the risks of being a completist, with four ragged versions of “Stop,” a rote soul number by Jerry Ragavoy/Mort Shuman that sounded way better when Howard Tate sang it. But there were also a number of mind-blowing performances that had been left in the vaults. Using the benefit of hindsight – and as someone who agrees with Hendrix’s later opinion of Miles – here is my definitive single-disc distillation of those four nights at the Fillmore, a collection I’m calling:

SIDE ONE

“Power of Soul” (December 31st, 1969 – First Set) Why not start with the first song of the first set? While Hendrix’s voice sounds a little thin on this recording, his guitar snarls with a thrilling complexity, dealing out riffs and solos like winning hands in a high-stakes poker game. Buddy’s vocal contribution works, giving you an idea of why Hendrix thought their collaboration would work. The guitar does most of the talking anyway, with a dazzling introduction that goes on for over half the length of the song.

“Message to Love” (December 31st, 1969 – Second Set) While the vocal interaction is a little rough, this exuberant slice of funky soul keeps the energy going, with some thrilling unison work from Hendrix.

“Machine Gun” (January 1st, 1970 – Second Set) There is no bad live recording of this extraordinary anti-war tone poem. In fact, I was tempted to make Band of Gypsys into The Machine Gun Variations and leave it at that. Instead, I chose to have it end side one. What this take has over the one used on the original album (1/1/70 – 1st set) is the sense of pain on the part of the victims of war, with their screams getting equal time alongside the sounds of the weapons of war. Hendrix’s first solo is almost pure anguish, with the eerie backing vocals the only sign of humanity. The quieter sections seem to invent a new kind of dub blues, with Miles’ drums taking on a horrific inevitability, like putting one foot in front of the other even though each step takes you closer to certain doom. Among the many tragedies of Hendrix’s early death is the fact that he was never able to complete a fully realized studio version of “Machine Gun.”

SIDE TWO

“Izabella” (December 31st, 1969 – First Set) This loose bit of roadhouse, gutbucket riffage seems the perfect way to kick off side two after the dread of “Machine Gun.” Even though he played it first, it fits here well, as Hendrix introduced it by saying, “I’d like to do this song dedicated to maybe a soldier in the army, singing about his old lady that he dreams about and humping a machine gun instead.” Why they left this off the original to make room for two Buddy Miles originals (the clichéd “Changes” and the hippy jive of “We Gotta Live Together”) I’ll never know.

“Bleeding Heart” (December 31st, 1969 – First Set) This slow, elegant extrapolation of the Elmore James classic must be what Hendrix was talking about when he said he wanted to get back to the blues. While he also played “Hear My Train A-Comin’” (once) and “Earth Blues” (three times), this is the best pure blues of the the two-night stand.

“Who Knows” (December 31st, 1969 – Second Set) “Happy New Year, goodbye ’69,” Hendrix improvises at the start of this first-ever performance of “Who Knows.” While the song never rises above a jam, Hendrix seems to really enjoy trading lines with Miles, getting into the inconsequential fun of lyrics like, “They don’t know (they don’t know)/About my baby (about my baby),” before letting his Strat rip the Fillmore’s roof off.

“Ezy Ryder” (December 31st, 1969 – First Set) Another debut performance, this time for a song Hendrix would focus on for his next album and perform at many concerts to the end of his life. Perhaps he left it off Band of Gypsys because he was already holding the image of what it would become in his mind. But this version, which Hendrix introduces by saying, “I seen this picture called Easy Rider, and I was mad as hell…We’re going to call this thing “Ezy Ryder,” we’ll just make up the words as we go along because we’ve got about 20 verses of it,” is savagely entertaining. Miles and Cox can barely keep up as Hendrix alternates between stop-start riffs and furious soloing. The ascending chords at the end take it over the top – and then drag you down to earth, a perfect ending for my perfected Band of Gypsys.

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First, there was Band of Gypsies. Just a few years ago, there was Machine Gun. And, in between times, sundry compilations, bootlegs and all manner of other sources drip fed other moments from four momentous shows onto the collectors’ market.  Now, all four have been gathered together, and the result is one of the most spectacular Jimi Hendrix collections yet.

Band of Gypsies was Hendrix’s union with Buddy Miles and Billy Cox, a shortlived union that effectively debuted and departed in the space of 48 hours, New Year’s Eve 1969 and New Year’s Day, 1970. Two shows per day at the Fillmore East marked the band’s brief life, and for a long time, the soundtrack – the original Band of Gypsies album alone – was regarded by some as one of those take-it-or-leave-it Hendrix albums, released out of sequence out of contractual obligation, and effectively filled with overlong jamming through songs we’d never heard.

The passage of time, of course, dismissed that opinion, and Machine Gun, which served up the first of the four shows, placed at least some of the music into the context of a show… a great show, which danced back and forth between Jimi’s past and future, and ranks today among the most exhilarating single disc Hendrix live albums of them all.  And now that it has been expanded to five discs, it’s even better.

You can play favorites with the different shows according to their repertoire. On the first night, new material predominated, with only “Lover Man” and “Hear My Train A-Coming” coming through to satisfy the oldies fans. But a few more crept in on the second set; there was the glorious blast of “Stepping Stone” and “Foxey Lady” amidships in the third; and the final show was greatest hits a-go-go, as the evening ended with a colossal “Voodoo Chile,” a brutal “Wild Thing,” a leviathan “Purple Haze” and even “Hey Joe,” the song that started it all for Hendrix, but which he’d never seemed to have that much time for.

The sound is excellent throughout; the booklet well-presented and written. The box won’t take up much room on the shelf, and the whole thing, frankly, is a joy from beginning to end. The Band of Gypsies travel on.

At this point, some 47 years after Jimi Hendrix’s death, it’s probably unrealistic to expect that a set of deep-vault studio tracks can expand the guitarist’s legacy in any meaningful way. This no doubt dismays the Hendrix obsessives, who pine for the long-whispered-about radical experiments they believe Hendrix squirreled away in some Electric Ladyland broom closet. Both Sides of the Sky is the third and purportedly final instalment in a trilogy of albums (starting with 2010’s Valleys of Neptune and 2013’s People, Hell & Angels dedicated to highlighting Jimi’s creative development throughout the last two years of what was an incredibly short albeit spectacular career.

For the rest of us, the arrival of any sort of Hendrix material, especially if it’s captured in the studio, is a chance to be awed, all over again and in surprising ways, by this human’s freakish powers of musical persuasion. No rock figure before or since could breathe fire like Hendrix does, on his beloved well-known albums and on the assortment that is Both Sides Of The Sky. Even when he’s playing the well-worn heard-it-a-zillion-times blues like the opening track “Mannish Boy.” Even when he’s dropping an over-the-top theatrical solo on his original “Hear My Train A-Comin'” that alternately celebrates and shatters blues tropes.

Jimi Hendrix, Both Sides of the Sky
Both Sides of the Sky comes out March 9th via Experience Hendrix LLC.

Both Sides Of The Sky culls music from sessions Hendrix began in 1968 as the follow-up to Electric Ladyland – but never completed as a cogent single album. Though its track list includes a tune with original Jimi Hendrix Experience members Mitch Mitchell and Noel Redding, the bulk of the set features the lineup that became Band of Gypsies – bassist Billy Cox and drummer Buddy Miles. Given the high-elevation stratospheres the second great Hendrix trio visited later on, it’s interesting to hear the group attend to rhythm in more foundational ways – check out the way they lock into and maintain the blazing breakneck pace of “Stepping Stone.” The steady backing allows Hendrix to tear into the massive contorted fistfuls of notes that define his solo.

Starting with “Mannish Boy,” a bluesy funky rocker that finds Hendrix exploring his inner Muddy Waters, the cut is also the first known recording he made with Buddy Miles (drums) and Billy Cox (Bass) in April 1969, several months before the trio officially named themselves the Band of Gypsys. “Lover Man,” also recorded with Cox and Miles in December 1969, is another up-tempo tune Jimi had been tinkering with since 1967’s Are You Experienced but never quite managed to perfect to his satisfaction.

Hendrix was open to all kinds of ideas during this period, and some of the most interesting moments involve studio visitors. Stephen Stills sings and plays on two tracks (his original “$20 Fine” and a new Joni Mitchell tune called “Woodstock,” which features Hendrix on bass). Johnny Winter appears as a Hendrix jousting partner on “Things I Used To Do,” and a figure from Hendrix‘ pre-stardom days, the singer and saxophonist Lonnie Youngblood, steps in for “Georgia Blues.”

He lets rip on a scorching “Hear My Train A Comin’,” backed by Mitch Mitchell (drums) and Noel Redding (bass), followed by a country-tinged rendition of “Stepping Stone,” the last single released during his lifetime.

On other tracks Jimi burns the midnight amp via “Jungle,” a previously unreleased instrumental, along with an embryonic take of “Sweet Angel” (recorded in January 1968), a song inspired by a dream Jimi had of his late mother, and continued to work on until his death.

Fans of Crosby, Stills & Nash may be fascinated to hear a nascent reading of Joni Mitchell’s “Woodstock,” with Stephen Stills singing and Hendrix filling in the role on bass. On other tracks Jimi branches out, exploring new musical territory on the medium-tempo ballad “Send My Love To Linda,” 

All these performances – along with the searching guitar/sitar/drums instrumental “Cherokee Mist” that closes the album – overflow with the single salient trait that made Hendrix unstoppable: his spirit. No matter what he’s playing, whether it’s a workman’s blues or some high-concept improvisation, he conveys, just through the way he sings and the way he shapes the notes, that what he’s doing matters. And will not be stopped. There’s always something deep and existential on the line, and it is that emotional intensity – not the songs, not the flashy solo playing – that defines every Hendrix encounter. This one just doesn’t disappoint.