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By the time Jimi Hendrix and the Band of Gypsys took the stage at the Fillmore East, the Earth was spinning through the last solar rotation that the Voodoo Child would live to witness. The two shows each on New Year’s Eve 1969 and New Year’s Day 1970 sketched the directions in which Hendrix might have moved had time been so kind. Over the course of the preceding four years, Hendrix had become something akin to a sonic oracle, channeling otherworldly ephemera into psychedelic sound. His 1967 debut release, Are You Experienced?, established the trio of Hendrix, drummer Mitch Mitchell, and bassist Noel Redding as significant creative forces in the evolving rock scene; 1968’s Electric Ladyland solidified his rep. By the time he was 26, the left-handed prodigy had made himself the recognized guitar virtuoso of his generation.
But if Hendrix’s name had been permanently enrolled in the canon of guitar greats, he was, on another level, trapped within the amber of his own mythology. The guitar pyrotechnics, the unparalleled technical proficiency of a cat who learned to play on a right-handed guitar strung upside down, were overshadowed by the image of a guitar-playing wildman with an Afro. And, truth to tell, Hendrix was both victim and perpetrator of his public legendsetting the guitars on fire, humping his ax like a manic porn studmade for the public’s perception of him as a nigger Dionysus, the ultimate chocolate exotica.
The Fillmore East showsrecordings of which were first released in 1970 as Band of Gypsys, the last release the artist approvedillustrate the Hendrix dilemma; they typify the contrast between the form and substance of a brilliant musician. The difference between the two shows is almost emblematic. The first is dominated by less-than-stellar guitar work and highlighted by the notoriously bacchanalian stage ritual; in the second, Hendrix opted to put on a workshop in experimental guitar. The contrast between the two is muted by the fact that songs from each night’s sets16 in all, only four of which appeared on Band of Gypsyshave been mixed together on the two-CD set Hendrix: Live at the Fillmore East.
Band of Gypsys was the second incarnation of Hendrix’s post-Experience sound. Hendrix cut his teeth as a bluesman and spent the formative years of soul and R&B as a sideman for the likes of Little Richard and the Isley Brothers. A combination of financial expediency and creative wanderlust brought him to England and led to the formation of the rock triumvirate in which he grew famous. When tensionsboth creative and personalcame between Hendrix and Redding, the former set out on a circuitous musical path that ultimately led back to his indigo roots. The ensemble that Hendrix appeared with at Woodstock fully realized his new orientation toward Afro-Latin percussion, jazz, and improvisation, and ultimately gave way to Band of Gypsys, the first all-black band Hendrix ever formed: Hendrix tapped his old friend Billy Cox to play bass and Buddy Miles to handle the percussion.
Though the collective ultimately scattered to the winds, what they put down at the Fillmore East in the first hours of a newborn decade hints at just how catholic Hendrix’s musical understanding was. Cox had come up out of Nashville with a hard-edged soul aesthetic that would come to be identified with the Memphis sound of Stax records. For his part, Hendrix had been holding extended jam sessions with elements as diverse as Santana and Miles Davis. It is no coincidence that Hendrix consciously set out to cultivate a black audience at this point, ultimately performing at the legendary Harlem venue Small’s Paradise and doing free open-air gigs on 138th Street. But the members of Band of Gypsyspartly because of the group’s brief life spannever achieved the sort of musical fraternity or intuitive understanding of each other’s sound that the members of the Experience did. The Gypsys’ version of “Voodoo Child” recorded that night is sedate, almost predictable, compared with what the Experience had done with the song. The same goes for the less edgy version of his blues autobiography, “Hear My Train a Comin’.”
Unlike, for example, Santana’s seamless blend, the roster of sounds and genres that each of the Gypsys contributed had not yet melded into an ecumenical whole. Instead, various influences drifted to the surface at various times. Besides their eclecticism, the Band of Gypsys had to contend with the fact that the musicians had hardly any experience with each otherand the group had been formed mainly to create an album as part of a settlement between Hendrix and an unscrupulous former manager. That said, Live at the Fillmore East remains mandatory listening.
The antiwar sound polemic “Machine Gun”particularly in the second night’s performanceunveils Hendrix at his creative best. Keeping time to the staccato drumfire that Miles turns in, Hendrix simulates an aerial dogfight, playing with dissonance to create a disturbing vision of war ongoing. This statement, bear in mind, comes from the guitar of a former Army paratrooper who asserted, “America is fighting for a completely free world in Vietnam,” in categorical contrast to the antiwar catechism of his peers. Midway through the song, he sarcastically inserts snatches of that primal war chant “Over There.” The ethereal vocals that punctuate “Machine Gun” leave you feeling void and haunted at the same time. The theme carries over from the CD’s preceding song “Izabella,” in which Hendrix recasts an Experience-like sound and combines it with a lament of a soldier writing to his girl back home.
And though Hendrix does not unstitch and resew the chords to “Auld Lang Syne” in the same way he disassembled and rebuilt “The Star Spangled Banner” at Woodstock, he almost offhandedly composes a signature Hendrix. But time and again, it is the blues licks that fight their way into the fore at the Fillmoreshowing up on “Burning Desire” and “Earth Blues.” The Buddy Miles-penned “Changes” is soul in its origins, but soul given a dose of the purple haze. It is one of the more coherent of the trio’s efforts.
Taken as a whole, the tracks on Live at the Fillmore East have a more prominent rhythm than the rest of Hendrix’s output. Because of Hendrix’s propensity to wander into unmarked improvisational terrain, these pieces are best as jam sessions, as open-ended musical sojourns. This recording represents the fetal period of a sound that never fully developed. In the classical arc of the tragic genius, Hendrix’s guitar was permanently silenced nine months later. The sessions with the Band of Gypsys remain as a map to roads never traveled. CP