Posts Tagged ‘Band of Gypsies’

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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.