During his all-too-brief career, Jimi Hendrix navigated an uncharted course, following his muse and his talents wherever they would take him. So much has been said about his guitar technique, his songwriting, and his lyrics. But as I lay listening to the 50th anniversary edition of Band of Gypsys, I realized that Hendrix was also a pioneer of that sometimes-maligned product, the concert recording. At the time of its release in March of 1970, live albums had something of a bad rap. Many were contractually obligated stop-gaps – excavated and thrown out into the marketplace by the label when an artist didn’t have new material. Some of the worst offenders weren’t even live albums at all, but studio recordings overdubbed with canned applause and whoops from some disembodied audience. With Band of Gypsys, Hendrix turned the live album on its head with an album of completely new tunes performed by a new ensemble with verve unmatched by most live albums to follow. And the recent audiophile vinyl reissue from Capitol/UMe proves that this collection still holds up, as exciting and boundary pushing as ever.
Now, it’s worth noting that Band of Gypsys came about due to a contractual obligation itself, but that doesn’t make it firmly part of that “let’s just throw this out to the unsuspecting public” category. Hendrix was getting pressure from Reprise to follow up Electric Ladyland. At the same time, a prior contract had allowed rival label Capitol to cash in on Hendrix’s early session work with a number of dubious releases. By 1969, Hendrix and his former manager Ed Chalpin arrived at a deal that gave him exclusive distribution to a new album. Hendrix had gathered together a new trio by October featuring bassist Billy Cox (who had served in Hendrix’s backup group at Woodstock) and drummer Buddy Miles, ex-Electric Flag. They agreed to record the album of new material live onstage at New York City’s Fillmore East on New Year’s Eve, during what would be their first joint concert performance.
After weeks of rehearsals full of inspiring jams, the band was a well-oiled machine by New Year’s Eve with a clutch of songs that signaled a new direction for Hendrix. But that’s not to say they were playing by the book. For this new ensemble, improvisation reigned. And the results are stunning – the sort of thing a listener can get lost in but also want to play again and again. Album opener “Who Knows” lays into a grimy, bluesy groove with a positively funky bass line, giving the space for call-and-response verses and for Hendrix to traverse an array of effects and approaches to soloing: staccato lines with a harmonizer emphasizing the higher frequencies; fuzzy wah; slinky phase-shifting goodness… it’s all here. What it may lack in structural complexity, it makes up for in instrumental artistry. Next, “Machine Gun,” an antiwar blues dedicated to those fighting in Vietnam. Here, Jimi’s guitar sounds like ten instruments at once. Whether mimicking gunfire, eliciting squealing feedback, or attacking the whammy bar, Hendrix explores the limits of the instrument and his array of effects with a near-violent ferocity.
“Changes” (also known as “Them Changes”) gives Buddy Miles a chance to shine. The more pop-oriented number alternates between gospel-tinged, almost Sam and Dave-like soul and a catchy, repeated riff from Hendrix. While it may not be as engaging as the more expansive improvisations on the album, it’s still an enjoyable performance of a song that would become a minor soul hit when it was re-recorded by Miles a few months after Hendrix’s death. The fiery “Power To Love” (a.k.a. “Power of Soul”) begins with a bluesy lead into an almost rockabilly groove. But just as you think you know what follows, the band launches into a funky groove putting Hendrix’s guitar squarely at the forefront. With shifting meters, rapid-fire double-stops, and the humanist refrain “With the power of soul, anything is possible,” it shows Hendrix embracing influences from funk as well as rock, and branching out into more universal lyrical themes. “Message of Love” (a.k.a. “Message to Love”) is even jauntier and funkier. While “Power to Love” was at times meandering, “Message of Love” is taut and seems primed to be a single, down to the “Yeah! Woo!” interjections from Miles and Cox. And while it’s based on a straightforward groove, Hendrix stretches the tune out with mind-blowing solos and plenty of rhythmic switches, even venturing into gospel territory at times. The album concludes with Miles’ “We Gotta Live Together,” a jam with a James Brown-like funk feel. It blasts off into the heavens halfway through as Hendrix conjures guitar squeals as he solos, frenzied, with an array of effects atop a gospel groove. As the group continues to pick up the pace, Hendrix suddenly hammers out ten huge-sounding power chords, seemingly signaling an end to the thrilling program.
Whether locked into a Buddy Miles composition or branching out into his arsenal of pedals and boxes to break the boundaries of his instrument, Jimi Hendrix reached new heights on Band of Gypsys. Fifty years on, the material not only still feels fresh, but it sounds better than ever on the recent 50th anniversary vinyl edition (digital versions of this master are also available). Fully authorized by Experience Hendrix, the new edition features all-analog mastering from the original master tapes. The music was pressed on 180-gram vinyl, plated at QRP. The result is a flawless, tick- and pop-free experience that allows the music to shine without all the pesky deficits that can plague the medium. As for packaging, this edition features a beautiful gatefold sleeve, a huge 24″x36″ replica of a 1970 Band of Gypsys promo poster, and a booklet with an in-depth essay by Hendrix historian and producer John McDermott who details the creation and impact of this legendary recording.
In all, the fiftieth anniversary edition of Band of Gypsys reminds the listener of just how vital a live album can be. Even one born from a contractual dispute can be a canvas for some of the most electrifying, visceral musical artistry. Here, Hendrix raised the bar once more, proving not only his technical prowess, but his unmitigated vision of what music can be. If you don’t have this album – or, more likely, even if you own it a few times over – you owe it to yourself to pick up a copy and remind yourself just how great music can be.