It was 1969 and Jimi Hendrix was at a crossroads in his career. The Jimi Hendrix Experience had recently disbanded with a wildly successful run, Hendrix had just electrified the Woodstock crowd, and he was hungry for something fresh, something brand new.
Hendrix was already the most innovative and progressive guitar player in history, yet all he wanted to do was jam, plain and simple. With long time friend Billy Cox, whom he jammed with during his army days, and drummer Buddy Miles, he did exactly that with the formation of the Band of Gypsys.
The Band of Gypsys would only release one LP, a selection of songs from their live New Year’s Eve performances on Dec. 31, 1969 and Jan. 1, 1970 at the Fillmore East in New York City. Hendrix was a major player in defining the 1960s as he was a musical, social and political icon, but he would bring in the new decade with an unexpected sound. While the lengthy set included some of his hits like “Purple Haze,” “Voodoo Chile (Slight Return)” and “Foxy Lady,” the LP selected six of his new tunes from the Band of Gypsys.
These songs didn’t make Jimi Hendrix famous; they solidified his place as a musical legend. He reached back to his rhythm and blues roots, kept his rock n’ roll influence, and brought in a new, heavy dose of funk to form a raw, earthy sound that revealed an even deeper musical complexity than his already highly sophisticated and accomplished repertoire of guitar masterpieces.
Most of the songs are freely riff-based and reach to a darker side of blues rock, the side that accepts psychedelic distorted guitar experimentation and lengthy improvisations on top of traditionalist blues form and musical ideology.
“Who Knows” feeds in with the Fillmore house announcer introducing the band while Hendrix gently noodles into a catchy blues riff that sets the tone for the song as it explodes into a rambunctious jam only to be interrupted by Hendrix’s burly voice trading vocals with Miles’s soul and Motown-style voice. The song builds into a progressive improvisation on top of the rhythm that gains intensity and peaks in Hendrix’s wild, yet intricate guitar solo. He relieves the listener as it descends into a mellow, funk bass line compliments of Cox.
A highlight of the album comes in “Machine Gun,” a Vietnam War protest track. Hendrix’s guitar gives clear indication of where the title comes from as he hauntingly mimics a machine gun with his distorted scratching. Though relatively unknown to the casual Hendrix listener, “Machine Gun” is one of Hendrix’s most complex guitar compositions, possibly his greatest. It shows his diversity as he effortlessly moves from one scale to another while still wailing on key notes to a deafening pitch. As Miles picks up the rhythm, Hendrix accepts this challenge with rapid finger board movement.
Hendrix chose to use two of Buddy Miles’ songs, “Changes,” and “We Gotta Live Together.” The first is a funky, light song with Miles’ voice as a nice compliment to Hendrix’s often forceful guitar sound. The latter has a similar feel that provides a break from the darker pieces put together by Hendrix.
“Power to Love” gives listeners a taste of Hendrix experimenting with his Marshall amplifier and infamous pedal effects, gradually slowing down to reveal Hendrix’s funky side.
“Message to Love” ventures into funk riffs and rhythms even more while still staying true to his psychedelic rock improvisations. They both provide some of Hendrix’s most interesting combinations of genres and sounds.
Sadly, “Band of Gypsys,” would be the last album Hendrix would see released as he passed away only three months thereafter. The Band of Gypsys were short lived, but their influence on rock n’ roll is ever present. Neo-blues acts like the Black Keys and the North Mississippi Allstars have taken this same formula imagined by Hendrix and have added their own tweaks and sounds.
Yet the Band of Gypsys had something that no neo-blues or rock band will ever be able to mimic: the strangely beautiful wailing of Hendrix’s stratocaster. This was the perfect complement to Miles’ soul influence and Cox’s funked-out bass lines.
These songs may not be heard from everyone’s favorite classic rock station, but do not be deceived: it’s rock n’ roll at its best.
Contact CU Independent Staff Writer Davis Brown at Brownfd@colorado.edu.