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Band of Gypsys, Voodoo prove Hendrix legacy lives

Band of Gypsys

Jimi Hendrix.

Capitol Records.

Voodoo Soup

Jimi Hendrix.

MCA Records.

By Scott Deskin

Even in death, Jimi Hendrix remains a viable commercial prospect. In 1970, Hendrix was a man in charge of his own musical destiny, but that destiny was a bit uncertain: Having broken up his first band, the Experience, the previous year, and formed the Band of Gypsys, with bassist Buddy Miles and drummer Billy Cox, Hendrix moved away from psychedelic rock toward blues in his songs. Picking up from MCA's release of Jimi Hendrix: Woodstock, two more albums help make his musical progression a bit clearer.

Band of Gypsys was the last Hendrix album to be released while he was still alive. Recorded on New Year's Eve in 1969, it documents some new material with his new band. The six songs that comprise the album have more in common with Electric Ladyland (including the 15-minute jam of "Voodoo Chile") than Are You Experienced (with pop efforts like "Fire" and "Foxy Lady" and psychedelia like "Third Stone from the Sun"). The key to the songs on this live performance may be the band itself: Miles and Cox lay down a fatter, albeit less flexible, rhythm than the Experience's Noel Redding and Mitch Mitchell.

The first two songs, "Who Knows" and "Machine Gun" make an effective first "side" of the album. Both penned by Hendrix, they share long, repetitive rhythmic signatures that build a groove for Hendrix to express himself. "Who Knows" is a plaintive, disaffected chant ("They don't know/ Like I know/ Do you know/ I don't know") that's fueled by Hendrix's fluid guitar on a solid backbeat: Buddy Miles echoes Hendrix's vocals with characteristic blues moaning. "Machine Gun" is a war-protest song, dedicated to "all the soldiers fighting in Chicago, Milwaukee, and Vietnam," that is probably the best song on the album: It's sparked by some periodic rapid-fire drum shots and Jimi's wailing guitar (stretched out to more than 12 minutes). The following lyrics typify the shattered dreams of a once hopeful generation: "I ain't afraid anymore/ your cheap talk don't even cause me pain/ So let you bullets fly like rain."

The second side of Band of Gypsys is a bit less compelling - maybe because the songs are shorter, the groove isn't as fervent, and Hendrix himself steps back to let aspiring band leader Cox sing lead on two of his own songs, "Changes" and "We Gotta Live Together." But on Hendrix's "Power to Love," the album comes to fruition with the inspirational chorus "With the power of soul/ Anything is possible." As a whole, the album coheres nicely, although the subdued texture of the performance pales a bit next to Hendrix's wild improvisations on the Woodstock disc.

The latest release in MCA's recently-purchased Hendrix catalogue is a new compilation titled Voodoo Soup. It's full of material that was cannibalized on albums throughout the 70s (all now out of print), but now has been assembled close to Hendrix's own plans for a studio album with the Band of Gypsys. Although some of the instrumentals tend to overshadow the actual songs, most of which aren't as chart-friendly as those from Are You Experienced?, the CD stands on its own remarkably well.

"The New Rising Sun," an instrumental that opens the album in a similar fashion to "And the Gods Made Love" from Electric Ladyland, overflows with guitar distortion and reverberation for a fantastic, science-fiction-inspired effect. "Belly Button Window" is the most traditional blues song on the album, which tells a story about the uncertain outside world from the perspective of a child still in the womb. "Stepping Stone" is a more up-tempo blues stomp, and "Freedom" (with the chant "Give it to me" in the chorus) argues for Jimi's musical and financial independence as well as, ironically, a plea for a girlfriend to get off heroin.

The next song, "Angel," is one of Hendrix's best known compositions and a posthumous hit, and its lovely tune bears some similarity to the balladry of "Little Wing." The remainder of the album is populated by free-floating jams or intense guitar exorcisms. Of these, "Room Full of Mirrors" stands out with its fuzzy, double-tracked guitar slides, heavily influenced by the 60s' acid rock; "Ezy Rider" draws inspiration from the film Easy Rider and owes a debt to Steppenwolf's "Born to Be Wild," although the guitar here is pure Hendrix; and the fiery instrumental "Peace in Mississippi" near the end of the album, which sounds like a continuation of "Voodoo Child (Slight Return)" and was actually recorded by the Experience in 1968. The song "Message to Love" (also present on the Band of Gypsys) disc sounds more run-of-the-mill, but it has the feeling of a highway jam with a purpose.

Whatever you may think of Jimi Hendrix, his legacy is here to stay and will have an influence on pop music (and Lenny Kravitz) for a long time to come. And for those who want to explore more than the famed guitarist's "greatest hits," Voodoo Soup and the live Band of Gypsys may just be your cup of tea.