Growing up, Jimi Hendrix was one of the big ones for me. Guitar hero, guitar God, six-string guru,..whatever you want to call him he was this super cool, super groovy alien being in colored silks and a flaming Strat making sounds on a guitar unheard of before. Of course he’d been dead over three years by the time I dropped from the ether to a Midwestern maternity ward, but Hendrix’ reach was just beginning. He was blowing minds long after he shed that mortal coil, and for me personally Are You Experienced? was heavily featured on my early childhood soundtrack.
First it was on a beat up vinyl my parents would spin on the Zenith console stereo in the living room, then in the basement with billiards, beer, and a haze of smoke. But later on when I was a mulleted teen cutting his teeth on a Fender Squier Strat in a basement practice room(which was built where a pool table once sat), Hendrix was the coveted maestro of wonky, slightly out-of-tune psychedelic blues guitar that connected the dots between Albert King, Otis Rush, and psychedelic garage rock.
Hendrix paid respect to the masters that came before, but bulldozed the same boring highway that led to “rock and roll” as it was known. He paved his own road that left cats like Pete Townshend, Eric Clapton, Jeff Beck, and the like with jaws on the floor. And all in the course of about 3 1/2 years. Just 3 1/2 years it took Hendrix to rewire all of our brains and open a door to a technicolor dream of soulful, scorching rock we have yet to see the likes of again. Of course there can never be another Jimi Hendrix, but he did pave the way for soulful psych rock and power trios to dominate our heads and hearts for decades to come. I’m pretty sure Prince would not have been the artist he became had it not been for Hendrix. And Miles Davis’ Bitches Brew? Electric Miles was very much inspired by Hendrix. Had Jimi lived long enough to don a stage with Miles? I can’t even imagine.
I can remember buying Are You Experienced? on cassette at a place called Shoestrings. It was this little video rental/music store in Nappanee, IN. My cousin lived in Nappanee and I was there a lot over summer breaks. Where I was a fan of Hendrix as a teen, my cousin was obsessed. Bought whatever he could whenever he was near a mall with a record shop. Shoestrings in his hometown was pretty light on variety. Are You Experienced? was it in the Hendrix department, so every trip to the Concord Mall or the University Park Mall it was grabbing something new from Jimi. One of those trips he grabbed Band of Gypsys. I remember us listening to it back at his place and were kind of underwhelmed. This wasn’t the groovy trio of Jimi, Noel, and Mitch. This was a different “experience” altogether. Jimi was playing with bassist Billy Cox and drummer/vocalist Buddy Miles. These two were steeped in blues and soul music. Plus, Buddy Miles sang on a some of the songs. At that point we were locked into Hendrix’ voice and delivery and weren’t prepared for Miles’ soulful squall. Every time his voice would come on it was that same disappointment I’d get as a little kid when an episode of The Three Stooges would come on and find it was a Curly Jo episode, instead of the one true Curly Howard. Nyuk.
Needless to say, Band of Gypsys just ended up collecting dust in a shoebox in my cousin’s closet till it was probably sold in a garage sale for .50. To our teenage ears it was a weird experiment, and a direction that seemed not as interesting as something like “If 6 Were 9” and “Spanish Castle Magic”.
Fast forward nearly 30 years and I’m going into a wicked Jimi Hendrix resurgence. In-particular, I’m really digging into live Hendrix. Woodstock, Monterey, Live in Maui, I can’t get enough of Hendrix’ live shows. There’s something about the slightly out-of-tune Strat, the looseness, and Hendrix eating up the stage with his charm and ease on the guitar that I was sorely needing in my life. I found myself falling back into his studio records with the Experience in a heavy way, and his BBC Sessions are absolutely astounding. But those live albums were what my weathered soul and ears were craving. One album I hadn’t dug into though was Band of Gypsys. On a recent trip to Karma Records of Warsaw I perused the Hendrix section and lo and behold there was Band of Gypsys. I said the hell with it, snagged it and off I went.
I’ve been spinning it most of this week. Nearly everyday after work I had it on the platter as I cooked dinner or was just chilling in the recliner staring at the screen on my phone. Even at work I’d revisit the album at my desk. I understand why 15-year old me wasn’t digging on Hendrix, Cox, and Miles. It’s a totally different vibe than the flashy Experience. I was wired for flash and guitar gymnastics back then. Listening now the years have been kind to this live gig at the Fillmore East on New Year’s Day, 1970. Maybe because I’m 47 now, but this is an amazing set of songs. Hendrix was still figuring himself out post-Experience, and the songs were still kind of fresh, but you could hear that Jimi was opening himself up. The sound is darker and more grounded. You can hear Jimi paving a new path with Billy Cox and Buddy Miles. Of course, by the time the album was released the band had broken up already. The album was not seen favorably by critics, and even Hendrix wasn’t all that excited about it.
If you were to buy this album, one reason alone to own it is the excellent “Machine Gun”. This powerful, Vietnam-era track might be one Hendrix’ best songs. It’s a testament to being inspired by who you’re playing with and Cox and Miles pushed Hendrix along to help him create this bombastic, soulful, and heavy-as-hell classic. I remember hearing this song in the opening scenes of Steven Seagal’s Under Siege and thinking “I knew there was a reason I love Steven Seagal.” Absolute masterpiece this track.
Opener “Who Knows” is a fun and funky track, and something that I’m sure went on to influence guys like Vernon Reid and Lenny Kravitz. “Message To Love” is another standout. The Buddy Miles vocals on this album don’t bug me like they did 30 years ago, but there’s nothing like the voice of Jimi Hendrix singing on top of his electric guitar. Nothing.
What could’ve happened had Jimi Hendrix not joined the 27 club? Had he lived on and made albums throughout the 70s? I would have loved to hear him play with Miles Davis like what was rumored to have been discussed. Or maybe collaborate with Sly Stone. Hell, could you imagine Jimi Hendrix playing on a Bee Gees album? Yeah, me either. Seriously, Jimi Hendrix could’ve done anything. His mind was opening to new sounds and he was ready to explore himself. Point the neck of his Strat inward, so to speak. Write from the perspective of a human struggling in the world, as opposed to the alien being in silk shirts and playing flaming guitars.
Sadly that’s a question that will never be answered. Fortunately, though, we’ve still got the music to play and deep dive into. Band of Gypsys is a one-time gig that opens a portal to a Hendrix ready to explore and develop as an artist and a human.