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 audienceso 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.”
VIDEO: Band of Gypsys performs “Who Knows” at the Fillmore East, 1969
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:
Earth and Space: Jimi Hendrix Live at the Fillmore with Band of Gypsys
“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.”
“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.
Note: Aside from the April 2020 Mojo Magazine, quoted material comes from Hendrix on Hendrix, Edited by Stephen Roby (Chicago Review Press, 2012)