Who better to usher in a new year and a new rock decade than Jimi Hendrix? At the end of 1969, having liberated electric rock & roll from its Top Forty shackles with his mutant strain of gunpowder R&B and aurora borealis psychedelia, Hendrix was poised on the cusp of a major reinvention of his own innovations. Concerned that his black-rock-stud stage routines were eclipsing, not enhancing, his music, Hendrix had been experimenting in the studio and in jam sessions with jazz, hard funk and ambitious guitar orchestrations to create a universal soul music. He even planned to title his next album First Rays of the New Rising Sun.
By the time the sun came up in the early morning hours of January 2nd, 1970, Hendrix had unveiled his new future blues. His Fillmore East shows with the Band of Gypsys, featuring bassist Billy Cox and drummer Buddy Miles, captured Hendrix with his spirit of adventure still in overdrive but his feet planted once again on terra firma. Standing unusually still, his head bowed over his Fender Stratocaster in profound concentration, he had unleashed a rainbow barrage of firealarm feedback, knife-edge riffing, raw soulful melodicism and sunlight harmonies that arced over Cox and Miles's roadhouse stomp with almost classical grace. In the twelve-minute "Machine Gun," Hendrix packed all of his guitar prowess and emotional force into a lengthy battle with Miles's rat-a-tat drumming. His Strat wailed "with the cry of the streets and the sound of sirens," wrote Loraine Alterman in Rolling Stone. "Although the lyrics were impossible to hear over the thunder of the band, the music is message enough."
"I will never again see a performance by a guitarist-vocalist with that intensity, with that total emotional impact," says promoter Bill Graham of Hendrix's second set on New Year's Day. "It was like an adagio dance. The guitar was the snake, and he was the snake charmer."
Hendrix was a little more modest about it when he spoke with journalist Al Aronowitz backstage after the show. "Earth, man, earth . . . ." he said. "I want to bring it down to earth. I want to get back to the blues, because that's what I am."
In the week leading up to the Band of Gypsys' New Year's Eve debut, the trio rehearsed a hastily compiled repertoire of almost all new material, mostly rugged urban blues like "Power of Soul" and the slow, boiling "Who Knows" -- far removed from the intergalactic fancies of Are You Experienced? and Axis: Bold as Love.
"We didn't really think we'd have enough time to get the songs down," says Billy Cox, an old Hendrix army buddy who now leads his own Jimi-inspired trio Gypsy Suns and Rainbows. But, he says, Hendrix "was really charged for the show. In fact, we were keyed in so cosmically with each other – I remember there were a few mistakes that he made and I went with the mistakes. And if I made a mistake, he went with mine."
"Billy and Buddy were groove people," says Alan Douglas, the curator of the Hendrix tape archive. "Jimi liked that because it left him a lot of open spaces to play in that Mitch Mitchell and Noel Redding [of the original Experience] would clutter up."
The Band of Gypsys didn't last out the month; after a disastrous Madison Square Garden appearance on January 28th, Buddy Miles went solo. Although Hendrix formed a new trio with Cox and Experience drummer Mitch Mitchell, his return to roots was quickly derailed by the demands of a heavy tour schedule and management pressures. The following September, Jimi Hendrix was dead. Still, for that one amazing two-night stand, the hard, bluesy simplicity of Cox and Miles enabled Hendrix, however briefly, to harness his runaway guitar energies with tough, earthy purpose.
But even at the Fillmore East with the Band of Gypsys he sometimes found old habits hard to break. Graham says that Hendrix's first set on the second night was in fact a disappointing reversion to his showbiz stunts. When Hendrix asked him during intermission what he thought of the set, Graham was brutally frank.
"I said, 'You're Jimi Hendrix, and anything you do is taken as gospel because of who you are,'" says Graham. "'In the first show, you humped the guitar, you played it with your teeth, you stuck it behind your back. You just forgot to play.'" Stunned, Hendrix went back out onstage for the second show and played. The incandescent version of "Machine Gun" on the 1970 live LP Band of Gypsys was recorded during that show.
"The solo on 'Machine Gun' was absolutely astonishing," declares Alan Douglas, who saw both sets. "In the first show, he was playing to the audience, having a good time, jumping around. In the second show, he dug right into the music."
After the second show, Graham raced backstage to congratulate Hendrix. "He came over, totally drained, full of sweat from top to bottom, right up to my face, and said, 'All right, motherfucker? That good enough for you? You gonna let me go now?'" Hendrix then wheeled around back on to the stage for his encore and did, in Graham's words, "fifteen minutes of the greatest shtick you'd ever want to see" – grinding up against his Strat, picking it with his teeth, the works. Having proved to Graham and the Fillmore crowd the true depth of his musical gift, Hendrix returned to the stage to show 'em all, one more time, that he was still one of rock's greatest showmen.
"At one point, he looked to the side of the stage and stuck his tongue out at me," Graham laughs. "It was very, very funny."