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Henrix's Gypsy Ways

[whitespace] A new double album spotlights Jimi Hendrix and his Band of Gypsys live at Fillmore East

By Nicky Baxter

On Dec. 31, 1969, when Jimi Hendrix, Billy Cox and Buddy Miles strode onstage for a two-night, four-show stand at New York's Fillmore East, few knew what to expect. Some months earlier, the Jimi Hendrix Experience had collapsed on terms none too amicable. In interviews, the guitarist expressed increasing discomfort with the public perception that his music was "too white." Weary of the musical straitjacket that was the Experience, he now sought a new musical direction that would, he hoped, attract a broader, i.e., darker audience.

Gypsys, Suns and Rainbows, a loose assemblage of mostly Diasporan African and Latino musicians debuted at Woodstock. The Band of Gypsys was a pared down version of that ensemble. The Gypsys' brand-new bag fused the head-rattling power of rock to the tail-waggling pulse of funk, inspiring generations of guitar 'n' groove-makers to come.

The Fillmore shows were initially recorded and released as a single album in 1970 as Band of Gypsys on Capitol. In the mid-'80s, the label would issue the misleading Band of Gypsys 2, just half of which included BoG performances.

The family-run Experience Hendrix label has at long last released an expanded two-CD collection culled from those historic concerts. Digitally remastered from the original master tapes, Jimi Hendrix: Live at the Fillmore East (Experience Hendrix/MCA) contains 16 tracks, including alternate takes of BoG cuts, the only known live versions of "Burning Desire," "Earth Blues" and "Stepping Stone" and blow-torch hot renditions of essential Hendrix ("Stone Free," Voodoo Chile [Slight Return]").

The Seattle native's music had always incorporated elements of soul and R&B, bit anchored by drummer Miles' fatback bashing and Cox's unerringly sympathetic bass, Jimi's playing was funkier, looser. Upon BoG's original release, some rock scribes panned the rhythm section's performance as merely serviceable. Miles, in particular, was singled out as a plodding, cliché-bound drummer and vocalist.

Yet the fact is that Hendrix preferred Cox's unadorned, earthy bass to ex-band member Noel Redding's overly busy embellishments. Past and future collaborator Mitch Mitchell's drumming was an excellent foil for Jimi's space-rock conceits, but his style was ill-suited for Hendrix's new R&B-grounded material. (Mitchell's post-Band of Gypsys attempts to recreate the seismic power and fury of Miles' playing on "Machine Gun" were desultory, at best.)

In any case, Hendrix's pacemakers certainly don't appear to hamper his blindingly brilliant guitar work on, say, disc one's "Stone Free." Weighing in at just under 13 minutes, the track contains extended moments of unbridled genius.

Hendrix's playing is feverish, teeming with unpredictable twists and turns. Tethering turbo-charged R&B riffing to molten discharges of howling harmonics, Jimi's performance is as vital as it is visionary. As was his wont, Hendrix saved his best licks for last, alternating cloud-light clumps of Spanish-tinged arpeggios with Wes Montgomery-like chording.

If "Power of Soul" and "Earth Blues" sketch out the blueprint for funk to come, "Hear My Train Comin' " and "Burning Desire" are apt illustrations of Hendrix's uncanny gift for rewiring ancient blues forms to suit the present. "Burning Desires" offers proof positive that Cox and Miles were far from idle worshippers; the duo's galloping pulse prompts some of Hendrix's funkiest fretwork.

Manic Machine

As awe-inspiring as these performances are, "Machine Gun" remains the high-water mark of the gig, and the Band of Gypsys' single most enduring work. The two versions here offer ample evidence that Jimi Hendrix was no political naf, as some writers have suggested.

The take on disc two is definitive. Listen with new ears to Hendrix's guitar evoke aural images of detonating bombs and strafing air strikes, the ear-shattering cries of mortally wounded warriors. Jimi's vocal, occasionally unsteady and shrill elsewhere, is dead-on here, variously world-weary, anguished and defeated.

Miles' surgically precise rat-at-tat-tat and Cox's morbidly laconic bass underscore the song's horror story. This composition (which during the previous set Hendrix dedicated "to soldiers fighting in Harlem, Chicago and, oh, yeah, Vietnam") must be considered one of the most devastating indictments of war in the history of popular music.

Co-produced by original Band of Gypsys engineer Eddie Kramer, Live at the Fillmore East, is a lavishly packaged item, as is befitting such a musical achievement. A full-color 24-page booklet contains a number rare photos and biographer John McDermott's exhaustive, often illuminating liner notes. (Complimenting the double-disc set, MCA has issued Jimi Hendrix: A Band of Gypsys, which features performance footage and interviews with Buddy Miles, Billy Cox as well as his Experience bandmates.)

If the Band of Gypsys proved to be a short-lived experiment--Jimi's manager summarily dismissed Miles following the trio's disastrous fifth and last gig at Madison Square Garden--the trailblazing music heard here, with blemishes intact, provides tantalizing intimations of where the guitar god was headed. Assuredly it was, as Hendrix was fond of saying, straight ahead.

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Web extra to the April 8-14, 1999 issue of Metro.

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