With so much new music available today, sometimes it’s good to look to the past. Welcome the JAG Classics where we examine the albums of yesteryear. Today we look at Band of Gypsys.
If you’re not a fan of classic rock, then Band of Gypsys is probably an album that you haven’t heard of. Band of Gypsys was the group Jimi Hendrix founded shortly after his legendary Woodstock performance in 1969. The group featured Hendrix friends Billy Cox (an old Army friend and member of the Woodstock band) on bass and drummer Buddy Miles (an old friend from Hendrix’s sideman days). The group released only one album, a compilation of live recordings from a series of New Year’s performances in 1969-70.
It would be fair to classify Band of Gypsys as a “jam” band because that was precisely the route Hendrix seemed to be trending. Unlike the hard charging classics we got from the Jimi Hendrix Experience (songs like “Fire” and “Foxey Lady”), Band of Gypsys provided a more relaxed approach. But defining relaxed as less technical, sloppy or easy would be foolish and incorrect. Hendrix’s guitar playing, as always, is front and center, and honestly, if you can’t appreciate what the man did with a guitar, you shouldn’t be listening to rock music anyway.
The 12-minute “Machine Gun”, an ode to the Vietnam War, is a striking piece of musicianship. Hendrix crafts his vocal melodies around his guitar playing (or is it the other way around?) in a way that has rarely been matched. Led Zeppelin (legendary in their own right) were able to pull off the same sing-song movement between guitar and vocals, but that featured Jimmy Page and Robert Plant matching and reacting to each other. Hendrix pulls this feat off by himself (even more spectacular when you factor in the fact that Hendrix never fancied himself as a singer and was notoriously shy when it came to vocals). Hendrix bends and sways notes in an otherworldly matter. Cox’s bass work puts you in a nighttime jungle, while Hendrix’s bends are the rockets flying your direction. Miles’ drum fills provide the machine gun in “Machine Gun” with Hendrix matching occasionally. If the music can’t provide vivid enough imagery for you, Miles’ haunting vocals mourning the loss of a fellow soldier (Hendrix? Am I reading too much into it?) sends chills down your spine. When’s it’s all finished, the audience provides polite applause, but must have been wondering what exactly they just heard.
Miles handles vocals on “Changes” but it’s essentially a front for Hendrix to let loose an extended solo before a nice detour into audience participation. “Changes” picks up the tempo and volume towards the end with Miles howling and Hendrix smashing a nice outro to close out the song. Hendrix does more with a guitar in the first 90 seconds of “Power To Love” than most guitar players can do in a lifetime.
What’s fascinating about Band of Gypsys is that the three members perfectly lock into each other. Hendrix obviously, runs wild. Commanding his guitar to go places no one else had taken it before. Strumming of chords is discouraged, in favor of Hendrix piling riffs and on the spot improvisation onto each other. Cox, on bass, is the time keeper. His playing isn’t flashy, but rather, he sets into a groove that allows Hendrix to take off and gives Miles a chance to spread his wings a bit. Miles’ drumming isn’t as outrageous (in a good way) like Mitch Mitchell was in the Experience. Possibly because of his blues upbringing (to Mitchell’s jazz influenced style) or the fact that he contributed vocals as well. Miles gets creative, but never abandons the time keeping aspect of drumming. If drumming is like speeding, Mitchell blows past the cop with the radar gun, while Miles slows down as he approaches it.
The music pushed the boundaries, but the group itself was unlike anything before or after. In the Caucasian dominated rock world of the 1960’s, a three-piece rock group made up of African Americans never occurred before, and certainly no group before them sounded like this. Unfortunately, the group never had the opportunity to develop further. They only had a handful of original songs at the time of the recording, and Hendrix was dead nine months after their string of New Year’s shows. Maybe it’s better that way. As a result we’re left with one live album that captures the genius of three musicians finding each other at the right time and place.
Have an album you want us to check out? Make sure to drop it in the replies.