NEW YORK – The Fillmore East blasted the new year in with the debut of Jimi Hendrix' new group, A Band of Gypsys. But, the Hendrix of the first day of 1970 was subdued compared to the Experience of the Sixties. With Buddy Miles on drums and Billy Cox on bass, Hendrix's one concession to the past was a rendition of "Foxy Lady" during which he briefly bent his knees, leaned back and played the guitar from his crotch.
On New Year's Eve it was reported he did his teeth pickin' routine, but otherwise the tricks are gone. Instead Hendrix stands still and concentrates on playing his guitar better than ever.
Unfortunately, A Band of Gypsys doesn't quite measure up to Hendrix's art. Cox, an old friend of Hendrix, provides solid support on bass, but Miles insists on grabbing his share of the spotlight as a singer. The drummer seems to suffer from the delusion that he is another Otis Redding when neither his styling nor his voice have anything to distinguish him from the run-of-the-mill R & B singer.
Most of the songs are new and Hendrix admitted to the audience that they weren't yet completed but the band was having fun jamming anyway. Only one number, "Machine Gun," stands out as truly exciting. Hendrix dedicated it to all the soldiers in Detroit, New York, Chicago and, oh yes, Vietnam. Punctuated by the rat-tat-tat of the drums, sounding like machine gun fire, the number captures the tension and violence of the revolutionary struggle. Hendrix's guitar wails with the cry of the streets and the sound of sirens. Although the lyrics were impossible to hear over the thunder of the band, the music is message enough.
The rest of the songs – included one called "Trying To Be" and another "Earth Blues Today," which Hendrix said is about "a whole lot of people trying to get their thing together and a whole lot of other people fucking them up" – tend to sound very much alike. Stylistically they aren't far from "Purple Haze" days.
Towards the beginning of his set Hendrix wished everyone "Happy new year – I hope we have a million of them if we can get over the summer." Then he let out a mocking chuckle. Reportedly Hendrix is involved with militant blacks and perhaps this is why he now has an all-black group and has thrown away the gimmicks of his act. It's as if Hendrix doesn't care about putting on a show for whitey any more; rather he is into really playing the guitar instead of shucking and jiving with fancy tricks.
This change is not guaranteed to please his fans. At the first show on New Year's Day, the audience really let loose with cheers only on the old "Foxy Lady." In all fairness, however, his second show reportedly went over much better especially when he and Miles sang a plea for unity about how we've all got to live together, a song did together in a jam at the Newport '69 festival in Los Angeles.
In the end, though, Hendrix is a musician, not a contortionist or juggler. If the fans can forget the visual show and if Hendrix can come up with a new approach to material for A Band of Gypsys, he'll remain a heavy on the scene.
In contrast to Hendrix, the Voices of East Harlem who opened the Fillmore New Year's show came across as totally fresh talent. Under the direction of gospel singer Bernice Coe, the 28 ghetto kids put on a show which musically and visually never stops moving. Backed by only guitar, drums and organ, the Voices filled the Fillmore with a joyous gospel-inspired fervor on songs like "Sing A Simple Song," "Let The Good Times Roll," "For What It's Worth," "Run, Shaker Life," and "Let the Sunshine In."
Lead singers change frequently and each one of them has powerful gospel shouting voices. Mrs. Coe's 11-year-old son Kevin almost walked away with the show. He sang "Run Shaker Life" working directly with the audience, getting them to clap, running up the aisle to involve everyone in the song. Kevin's got a voice that would make any white blues singer turn green.
Wearing dungarees and dungaree jackets, the boys and girls dance while they sing, but their choreography is natural, not the tight Motown variety. It fits right in with the high spirits of the music; each one of the Voices is obviously having a ball on stage.
Organized originally as part of an urban development plan to give kids something to do other than hanging around street corners, the Voices rehearse in an empty A&P store in Harlem. What they've come with up does more for black power and pride than anything Hendrix said or seems to be trying to put across. The Voices have such spirit and dynamism that they had the Fillmore crowd, who had really come to see Hendrix, clapping and shouting for more.
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Currently the Fillmore East stands out as the best place to hear live rock in New York. The sound system is superb so that people in the $3.50 balcony seats can hear the music. The theater set-up of Fillmore East with its 2,639 seats doesn't allow dancing, but it does give the audience a chance to see as well as to hear. The ushers, who sometimes are zealous to the point of rudeness in carrying out their duties, effectively keep the aisles clear so that there isn't a solid wall of writhing bodies blocking the stage. The Joshua Light Show, between sets, often run cartoons or shorts – the night of the Hendrix show it was the last 10 minutes of Dr. Strangelove – so that there's a show on even when bands are setting up.
Although the light show does create an effective environment for the music, at times it distracts from the performers. For example, groups like the Voices Of East Harlem or Sam and Dave do so much visually that the light show is superfluous.
Although many people gripe about the ticket prices at the Fillmore East, they are reasonable considering the prices top acts charge to perform. Each weekend, two shows each on Friday and Saturday, Bill Graham books in at least two name acts and one comer.
The Fillmore's chief fault lies outside the theater. Panhandlers crowd the sidewalk in front of the marquee asking for handouts of tickets or spare change. The congestion makes it an ordeal at times to get into the theater. According to Keeva Kristal, managing director in Cohen's absence, there is nothing the Fillmore can do about the situation which is common to the East Village.
Like anyone who is successful, Graham serves as a handy target for criticism and ridicule. But Graham brought rock to New York on a regular basis under professional conditions satisfactory to both the performers and audience. Previously rock was confined to clubs where acoustics aren't good or to occasional concerts at places like Felt Forum at Madison Square Garden. In a little less than two years, Graham has given New York its best conditions for regular rock.
This story is from the February 7th, 1970 issue of Rolling Stone.