I've never thought Jimi Hendrix was a particularly good songwriter. He certainly wasn't a great singer. But, to quote another guitar hero now gone, he could play a guitar just like ringin' a bell. I've always believed that there were three great masters who revolutionized electric guitar playing. The first was Chuck Berry, who developed a distinctly electric vocabulary for the guitar. The third was Eddie Van Halen, whose use of two hand tapping and whammy bars opened up new possibilities for the instrument. Jimi Hendrix was the second, and arguably most important, combining virtuosity, soul, and extended techniques to give the guitar possibilities unavailable to any other instrument.
Band of Gypsys is the last album Hendrix released in his lifetime. It's a live record covering two consecutive gigs, one on New Year's Eve and the other on New Year's Day, together ushering in the new decade. The sixties were over, the seventies were just beginning. Sadly, Hendrix would not be around for the decade, or who knows what kind of mischief he would have gotten up to, or what new innovations he would have explored on his instrument?
Already, in his short career, we can hear Hendrix conquering and subsequently getting bored with a number of genres. He played around with blues and ballads, embraced more straightforward soul and rock, and spent most of Electric Ladyland deep in a exotic realms of jam-based psychedelia. With band of Gypsys, he stretches himself still further, starting to play around with jazzier and funkier textures than we have heard from him before.
On this outing, he is backed by the stripped down lineup of Buddy Miles on drums and Billy Cox on bass, having fallen out one too many times with the Jimi Hendrix Experience backing band. Hendrix generously lets Miles share vocal duties and sing a few of his own songs, which is nice for Buddy but frankly the least interesting parts of the record. Elsewhere though, the musicianship of the sidemen is excellent, particularly Miles' snare drum contributions to Machine Gun, which imitates the sound of the title weapon.
Speaking of Machine Gun, it's undoubtedly the centerpiece of the album, being both the longest and most musically adventurous track here. For almost 13 minutes, Hendrix sings an indictment of violence while illustrating his point with his snarling, howling guitar antics, which mimic both sirens and screams while Miles rat-a-tats away. Apparently unable to find sufficient challenge in the fretboard itself, Hendrix resorts to playing the feedback from his amplifier in a way that anticipates Robert Fripp's solo on David Bowie's "Heroes" seven years later. It's pretty thrilling to listen to, not to mention innovative.
Lyrically, Hendrix seems to be in a reflective, almost meditative frame of mind, with the songs dominated by themes of peace, love, and lamenting violence. There's a sadness in the material that, in retrospect, seems appropriate given how short the remainder of Jimi's life would be. It's also reminiscent of some of the political work of bands like Parliament and Funkadelic, with whom Hendrix seems to be in sympathy on parts of this record. Power to Love in particular bears distinctive traces of funk influence.
We'll never know what would have happened if Hendrix had continued his career throughout the seventies. Maybe he would have explored new forms, created new innovations, bounced through jazz, funk, and fusion, and improved on an already enormous legacy. Maybe he would have fizzled out and become just another irrelevant relic of the past. In any case, rock guitar's debt to his playing cannot be overstated, and although his style of music is not something I'm personally drawn to too often, as a technician and innovator, it's impossible not to be amazed by him.