The Great (Live) Albums: Jimi Hendrix’s ‘Band of Gypsys’

The Great (Live) Albums is a bimonthly look at some of the best—or at least most interesting—live recordings in pop music history. How do these odd documents fit in with an artist’s overall discography? What do they teach us about the history of rock? Let’s find out!

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Band of Gypsys, Jimi Hendrix (1970, Capitol)

It’s a quandary posed by THC-addled multiverse hypothesizers since time immemorial: What sort of music would Jimi Hendrix have made, had he lived?

Part of what makes the question such a rich thought experiment is that the Seattle-born, London-based guitar god is so inextricably tied to the flower-power psychedelia of the late 1960s that it’s hard to imagine him operating in any other era. Would Hendrix have kept pace with the trends of the 1970s, ‘80s, or ‘90s? Could he have done disco? New wave? Punk? Could Jimi Hendrix rap? Thanks to a big pile of barbiturates and cold vomit we’ll never really know. But there are some clues, most prominently in Band of Gypsys—the 1970 live album whose troubled production vexed Hendrix in life but in death stands as final, fascinating document of an icon in transition.

Hendrix himself was never a huge fan of Gypsys. Not that he had to worry about it all that long. Recorded at New York’s Fillmore East on New Year’s Day 1970 it would be just a scant eight months later—September 18—that the 27-year-old musician would embark on his ultimate, fatal misadventure.

Some context: the legendary Jimi Hendrix Experience had broken up the previous year, leaving a solo-ish Hendrix to perform at 1969’s Woodstock with an ad hoc lineup consisting of Experience drummer Mitch Mitchell and bassist Billy Cox, among others. By the time of the Fillmore shows the group had realigned once again into a power trio, retaining Cox but adding future California Raisin Buddy Miles on drums and backing vocals. That the album was recorded at all was to fulfill a legal obligation, settling a dispute between Hendrix and his former manager. The album’s six tracks—“Who Knows,” “Machine Gun,” “Changes,” “Power of Love,” Message of Love,” and “We Gotta Live Together”—were actually culled from three separate Fillmore East shows across two days, selected from 24 total songs performed live; arguably a pretty low yield.

Needless to say, the salvaged results don’t exactly paint a complete portrait of a true circa-1969/70 Jimi Hendrix concert going experience. Rather, it’s an imperfect grab bag of improbable guitar pyrotechnics and off-the-cuff creative experimentation capturing one of the signature rockers of the 1960s making a productive—if ultimately doomed—pivot toward the 1970s.

 Renegades of funk, or something.

Renegades of funk, or something.

The record begins with “Who Knows,” nine minutes of gangster bop strut anchored by Cox’s funky bass, which skips along like a hero pimp in no particular rush make his next bitch-slapping appointment. One thing is immediately apparent: that the lockstep R&B grooves of the Miles/Cox rhythm section are a far cry from the paisley slop of the JHE’s Noel Redding and Mitch Mitchell—way more James Brown than Ginger Baker and Jack Bruce. The most infamous part of the song are Miles’ backing vocals, including a prolonged scat breakdown that sounds like Tweety Bird ripping huge chunks of cotton off a didgeridoo-sized vaping device. The drummer’s vocals are intrusive, sure. But I don’t hate them.

But let’s be real. Band of Gypsys mostly exists as a showcase for its second track, “Machine Gun”—12 minutes and 38 seconds of expressionistic guitar playing, designed to conjure the experience of being a soldier on the ground in Vietnam. It’s rock music as journalism, as Hendrix makes his guitar sound like everything from circling army choppers to falling bombs to automatic rifle fire slicing the jungle in half. But the noises Hendrix wrings out of his strat aren’t gimmicky or overly literal in an Adrien Belew “now-my-guitar-sounds-like-an-elephant” sort of way. They’re simply a range of tones and textures arranged into a narrative that impossible to miss.

Side Two of the album contains two Buddy Miles and two Jimi Hendrix compositions apiece—Miles’ “Changes” and “We Gotta Live Together” and the Hendrix diptych of “Power to Love” and “Message to Love.” They’re good, but all four tracks are vaguely interchangeable pieces of upbeat funk mixed with hard rock. Again though, Gypsys’ sonic orientation is pointed squarely towards the future. The combination of tight grooves (to my ears) even anticipates the late-‘80s/early-‘90s funk-metal of Fishbone, Faith No More, and the Red Hot Chili Peppers. And the lyrics are more explicitly political, or at least message-oriented. No abstract invitations to “kiss the sky” anywhere in sight.

Band of Gypsys may be imperfect as an album. But as a snapshot of a singular artist caught between eras, it’s fascinating. At the time of Hendrix’s death, the guitarist’s metamorphoses from flower-child space cadet to funk soldier wasn’t yet complete. But a “Me Decade” Hendrix isn’t so unfathomable. Just stretch your ears, listen, and—when appropriate—run for cover.

-Matt Warren (@mpmwarren)