I’m sure we’ve all heard of Jimi Hendrix – yet significantly less of us have heard of his album, Band of Gypsys. This phenomenal live album was the first that Hendrix had released after leaving his previous group, The Jimi Hendrix Experience, who he performed many of his most well known tracks with. It was also the only live album that Hendrix authorised before his death. The album was in fact formulated to settle a contract dispute with a former manager of Hendrix, yet not surprisingly birthed a masterpiece of an album.
Band of Gypsys witnessed the development of new tracks and recording demonstrations after Jimi’s appearance at Woodstock Festival in 1969, alongside new faces. Bass player, Billy Cox, and drummer, Buddy Wiles, influenced a turn in Hendrix’ musical approach, especially regarding the topics that he expressed through the medium of music. Hendrix not only paced back to earlier blues roots, but also incorporated many more improvisational guitar patterns. In many respects, this album exposes a wider expanse of talent from the trio, as opposed to The Jimi Hendrix Experience where Jimi was very much the “front man”. The creative high which Jimi had been stretched to allowed these live performances to be considered as some of his greatest.
The album’s opening track, ‘Who Knows’, marches well into nine minutes and it becomes apparent that these are not simply run-of-the mill guitar tracks, but in fact works of soul and poetry. The merging of funk and rock also bare the themes of self-examination, as opposed to Hendrix’ often erratic lyrics. Each song can be witnessed to mould and build around each portion of the song through progressive jamming. Miles and Cox were able to offer Jimi the stability throughout the tracks which allowed him to run loose with his creativity. The Buddy Miles song, ‘We Gotta Live Together’ is similarly improvised and we can witness a lyrical movement from world-weariness towards compassion and a desperation for love.
These live shows were also a courageous step for Hendrix as they were some of his first experiences with specific effects and equipment. ‘Machine Gun’ in particular is considered by many as the epitome of the album, due to being the most evidently equipped with a new face of power and guitar tones. From his guitar alone, Hendrix was able to personify the wrath of war through an intense musical statement. Jimi was able to completely break the boundary of what was capable of a man with a guitar and a broad imagination. The album has a jam-session feel which allows us to appreciate Hendrix fully dissolved into his guitar playing, and not simply as a performer. The at times lousy vocals simply ignite the poetic values of Hendrix and his ability to instrument a message through his voice.
Many of these tracks can be likened to the vibe created by ‘Foxy Lady’ and ‘Purple Haze’, which he released previously with the Jimi Hendrix Experience. This album is most notably created by Hendrix the musical genius, as opposed to simply Hendrix the star and it’s this alone which makes it so iconic and potentially one of the best live albums.
Words by Lydia Ibrahim