Band of Gypsys Jimi Hendrix Capitol Records
This September 21st will mark the twenty-fifth anniversary of Jimi Hendrix' death, in all likelihood ending the slue of commemorative reissues that have redefined Hendrix' legend for a new generation of listeners. Of all the Hendrix reissues from the past few years (which include a great deal of previously unreleased material), perhaps the album most worthy of re-appraisal is that bastard son of Jimi recordings, Band of Gypsys, which is being distributed by Capitol Records twenty-five years after the original release.
The only live album ever to be released in his lifetime, Band of Gypsys was recorded essentially for free in order to liberate Hendrix from a crooked contract with promoter Ed Chalfin. Partly because of the history behind the album, Band of Gypsys has traditionally been given short shrift by causal Hendrix listeners who are drawn to the catchier themes of his three studio albums, Are You Experienced Axis, Bold as Love, and Electric Ladyland.
Indeed, the Jimi Hendrix on Band of Gypsys is definitely not the Hendrix that those most familiar with "Purple Haze" know and love. In his all too brief career (Hendrix was a solo act for the four years preceding his death in 1970, at age twenty-six), Hendrix assumed many guises. Perhaps the most serious and introspective version can be found on /Band of Gypsys. The band on this album features a rhythm section that consists of Hendrix's childhood pals, Billy Cox on bass and Buddy Miles at the drums and supplying many of the vocals. Although Miles is perhaps not so exciting and virtuosic a drummer as his predecessor Mitch Mitchell, Cox is definitely a better, funkier and less egotistical bass player than Hendrix' long-time sideman, Noel Redding.
Band of Gypsys was recorded in the very last moments of the 1960s, and this accident of fate actually serves as powerful symbol for the whole album. The concert at New York's Fillmore East which comprises this album took place on New Year's Eve 1967-70. The first side consists of two of Hendrix's most powerful artistic statements, epic versions of "Who Knows" and "Machine Gun." These two tracks can be seen to represent an anguished re-evaluation of the end of an era of optimism marked by the late 1960s. The second side of the album consists of four extroverted funk tunes that seem to capture the very different musical message of the 1970s: 'let's just forget about it and groove.'
On "Who Knows," Hendrix solos with an absolute seriousness that would soon disappear from records in the face of the absurdity and high camp of Parliament-Funkadelic an other funkers. "Who Knows" is a song about confusion, with Hendrix' ever-changing guitar sound feverishly groping through chaotic fields of sound, as Miles and Cox groove along sympathetically. Hendrix opens his last solo of the ten-minute track with an eerie, apocalyptic, metal-on-metal sound-like a restless spirit trapped in a grotesquely funky prison. Twenty-five years after the fact, it is clear that Hendrix is still the master of pure sound on the electric guitar. His solo improvisations are not based so much on notes as they are on the quality of the tone produced by his instrument, which changes from a shrill and piercing wa-wa to a low, fat growl.
The masterpiece of the album, and arguably of Hendrix' career, is "Machine Gun." With a gloomy sense of foreboding, Hendrix introduces the piece by wishing everyone in the audience a happy New Year, and many returns, bitterly adding, "I'd like to dedicate this, yeah, it's sort of a drag that scene that's going on, to all the soldiers that are fighting in Chicago and Milwaukee and New York, oh yeah, and all the soldiers fighting in Vietnam." What follows is a thirteen minute picture of broken lives and death, an unmitigated tragedy broken only by hints of the absurd. "Machine Gun" begins with a dying melody that sinks into the soft earth. Then Miles' drums and Hendrix' guitar produce a series of machine-gun rattles that turn the mood from melancholy to chaos. Hendrix' solo is cinematic montage of the tragedy of war over the constant refrain of the machine-gun beat. His voice is choked and unsure, perhaps the worst singing by Hendrix on record. But the warbling voice gives way to Hendrix' guitar which rings loud and clear like a siren, then mimics the sounds of conflict: hysterical sobs, helicopters, motorcylcles tearing through urban canyons, ghostly whistles, nightmarish soft tones bent with the whammy bar, a brief display of pyrotechnics and then silence as the song ends and the world becomes trite again. There is a beautiful moment of absurdity preserved forever on record after "Machine Gun" ends when a lisping voice intones the pathetic replay to Hendirx' forceful musical statement: "No bullets..."
The second side of Band of Gypsys tries to put the agony and confusion of the first side out of mind. Hendrix is obviously just as comfortable riffing along to happy Sly Stone grooves as he is in his sonic explorations. The contrast to the first side is somewhat hard to take, especially on the two compositions written by Miles, "Changes" and "We Gotta Live Together," as the audience is encouraged to clap with silly shouts of "Yeah!" "Everything's gonna be alright!" The two remaining Hendrix compositions, "Power to Love" and "Message of Love" are more intriguing. These two tracks offer a sense of agonized and feverish optimism that is a couterpart to the first side's confusion and depression. Interspersed between naive lines like, "With the power of soul, anything is possible," Hendrix' sincere guitar seems to be screaming, "Believe! Believe!" One line from "Power to Love" seems to summarize the sense of blissful stoned-ness coupled with agonized consciousness that characterized Hendrix' artistic quest. After some psychedelic nonsense about a jellyfish, Hendrix suddenly shines with one of his frequent moments of poetic lucidity.
Floating every day, riding high/but sometimes the wind ain't right