The Band of Gypsys jamming through previously unreleased recordings including a stomping “Here My Train A Comin’.” Stephen Stills accompanying Jimi Hendrix on bass for his socially conscious blues track “Somewhere.” R&B saxist and former Jimi employer Lonnie Youngblood honking hard on “Let Me Move You.” Studio tracks by a formative version of the Gypsy Suns and Rainbows band that accompanied Hendrix at Woodstock.
These are among the treats in People, Hell & Angels, the collection of Hendrix rarities being released via Jimi’s family’s Experience Hendrix label on March 5. The set’s dozen cuts favor heavy blues and R&B, including covers of Elmore James’ “Bleeding Heart” (one of Jimi’s favorite blues chestnuts) and an R&B track featuring Harlem vocal tag-team the Ghetto Fighters — who appear in 1973’s A Film About Jimi Hendrix — kicked-up a notch thanks to Hendrix’s six-string overdubs.
All of the tracks were cut in 1968 and 1969, when Hendrix had taken full creative control of his career and was using the studio as a tool to define his sound. For Hendrix, the studio was a mirror in which he could examine different rhythmic and textural approaches to different tunes, and work out the particulars of new line-ups like the Band of Gypsys and the short-lived outfit with rhythm guitarist Larry Lee that he took to Woodstock.
Hendrix's test-laboratory approach is the reason versions of “Hear My Train A Comin’ ” and “Bleeding Heart,” two numbers Hendrix seemed particularly interested in exploring, continue to surface. He would test his ideas for melodies, overdubs and other orchestrations with different rhythmic approaches, various guitars and amps, and alternate players — which is the same experimental strategy that resulted in two radically different, brilliant versions of “Voodoo Chile” ending up on Electric Ladyland.
After the rock-heavy inclinations of his first two albums, Are You Experienced and Axis: Bold As Love, Hendrix was indeed trying to take his approach in new directions, yet simultaneously hew closer to his blues and R&B foundation, with a goal of formulating a fresh, highly personal form of blues as the core language of what he called his “electric church.”
“After the Royal Albert Hall show [in February 1969] Noel Redding left and Jimi had to fill the gap,” Hendrix’s engineer and friend Eddie Kramer, who mixed all the tracks on People, Hell & Angels, explains. “With Billy Cox playing bass it’s a whole different ball game – much funkier. Jimi considered Woodstock a bit of a jam, but that band was the start of the Band of Gypsys, with extra percussionists. That led to the four shows by the Band of Gypsys at the Fillmore – amazing performances and a historic album, and the next step of the evolution he was seeking. But then the Band of Gypsys was over in January 1970. Buddy Miles thought maybe he should lead. I don’t think Jimi appreciated that.”
Although the studio jamming and experimenting continued until Hendrix’s death on September 18, 1970, People, Hell & Angels really focuses in on the work that led to the blues-R&B-rock-funk powerhouse Band of Gypsys, Jimi’s most fusionistic outfit. The tracks here with the Gypsys line-up, bassist Billy Cox and the late drummer Buddy Miles, include a version of “Earth Blues,” a song that first surfaced on 1971’s Rainbow Bridge, that sets Hendrix’s lyrics in stark relief, as well as the previously mentioned take on “Hear My Train A Comin’,” which gets a soulful, searing treatment driven hard by Miles’ thunderous rolls and alligator-snap snare.
“Somewhere” benefits similarly from Miles’ propulsion and displays the dark side of Jimi’s tone and his expert wah-wah technique. “Bleeding Heart” was cut at the same sessions as “Hear My Train A Comin’,” and builds through a meandering melodic intro to hard-core blues, with Jimi digging deep into tight-phrased pentatonic runs. Saxist Youngblood also sings on “Let Me Move You,” beefing up the song’s juke joint feel with his exhortations betweens passages of his staccato horn. And Jimi’s addition to the Ghetto Fighters’ “Mojo Man” is a prime example of how a single stellar, burning instrumental performance can transform an otherwise pedestrian arrangement.
Along with 2010’s Valleys of Neptune, People, Hell & Angels provides the best look inside Jimi’s musical notebook to date.