This is the album that Hendrix “owed” Capitol for releasing him over to Reprise Records and significantly, it isn’t a studio effort, as his Reprise albums have been. Which is not to imply that it is any better than those Experience albums. The context of the album is vital — Band of Gypsys was one of Hendrix’ 1969 amalgamations consisting of Buddy Miles on drums and Billy Cox on bass, among others. They hadn’t been together very long when this session was recorded live at the Fillmore East, New Year’s Eve 1969/70, and the music shows it.
Both sides are basically extended jams with lots of powerful, together guitar by Hendrix, able bass by Cox, at times overbearing drums by Miles and rather lame, buried vocals by both Hendrix and Miles. The group sound is surprisingly similar to Hendrix’ old “Foxy Lady” and “Purple Haze” days, with the significant difference that here Hendrix really gets into his guitar playing. No more the flashy, crotch-oriented gimmickry and extended wah-wahs — here he just stands still and shows us how adept he is with the ax. The support from Cox is always inventive, but Miles’ drumming is definitely disturbing and exceedingly pedestrian at times. Hendrix overcomes on pure tension alone, as both “Message To Love” and “Who Knows” aptly demonstrate.
The problem is the vocals — all the tunes are new ones and with Hendrix’ weird poetic sensibility (akin to LeRoi Jones in effect at times: catch the poem on the inside cover), it would have been a large improvement had we been presented with a little less drumming and a lot more vocal. The excitement and hypnotic compression so apparent in the music would have been pressed home even wore forcefully behind Hendrix’ drawling, heavily inflected voice, because Hendrix is not just a run-of-the mill R&B singer — his voice is just as much an instrument as his guitar. But, it’s all just potential this time out, with the one exception of the twelve-minute “Machine Gun,” dedicated to “all the soldiers that are fighting in Chicago, Milwaukee and New York and . . . oh, yes . . . all the soldiers fighting in Viet Nam.” Here the Hendrix vocal is in the forefront and perfectly matched to his most desperate, driving guitar solo ever. You can hear the sirens wailing and the entire mood, even down to Miles’ drumming, is one of confrontation and freneticism mixed in equal parts.
This album is Hendrix the musician. With just bass and drum support he is able to transfuse and transfix on the strength of his guitar-work alone.