LIVE: Vernon Reid’s Band of Gypsys Revisited @ The Egg, Albany, 11/01/2019
“I am what I am, thank God / Some people just don’t understand…”
That quote from “Message of Love” is Jimi Hendrix in a nutshell: There has never been anyone like the volcanic guitar icon, before or since, and he’s still got some people scratching their heads almost 50 years later. But the flip side of that is that the people who “got” Hendrix REALLY got him, and there was a gathering of those individuals – onstage and in the audience – when another uber-guitarist named Vernon Reid brought Band of Gypsys Revisited to Greater Nippertown.
Band of Gypsys was Hendrix’ last release of original material before his untimely death in 1970. By rights, this live album should have been Jimi’s biggest gamble, as this was the first time Hendrix was appearing without bassist Noel Redding and drummer Mitch Mitchell, the rhythm section for all three Jimi Hendrix Experience albums. Instead, Hendrix took the stage at the Fillmore East with bassist Billy Cox (who was part of the pickup band that backed Jimi at Woodstock) and former Electric Flag drummer Buddy Miles.
The result was arguably Hendrix’ funkiest, most powerful album to date, and one that should be mentioned in the same breath as masterpieces like Are You Experienced and Electric Ladyland – and, if Reid has anything to say about it, that’s going to happen. “This record changed my life,” he enthused before being struck literally speechless at everything Band of Gypsys means to him. Instead, he chose to simply show us its importance – both to himself and to Hendrix’ legacy.
Before that, though, Reid’s quartet provided us with some much-needed context by doing an eye-popping set of some of the Experience’s biggest hits, beginning with the big question “Are You Experienced?” Offset by Andre’ “Dre Glo” Lassalle’s mind-blowing affinity for Hendrix-like feedback, Reid led us into the martial beat that sets the piece off, then taking the mic and suggesting, “If you could just get your… mind together / Come on over to me…” The near-full house didn’t need to be asked twice; given the preponderance of Hendrix-related regalia in the audience, that was no surprise.
Andre’ Lassalle’s addition to the group may have raised an eyebrow to some, given Reid’s latest penchant for playing in trios – a configuration Hendrix preferred, as well. Reid even asked the question himself before “Wind Cries Mary”, whimsically wondering aloud, “Why don’t I hog all the glory for myself?” He then explained Lassalle was an old friend from back in the day in Brooklyn and was “the first person to show me how to play ‘Little Wing’ correctly!” Mind you, Lassalle wasn’t just there for nostalgia purposes: His inclusion allowed Reid to incorporate a rhythm-guitar element that ramped the funkiness up a notch, and Lassalle’s own snarling guitar chops added a supplementary solo voice to music that was already monumental. It also freed up Reid to be VERNON FREAKING REID, which is an awesome thing to behold.
What interested me was how early Hendrix tracks like “Crosstown Traffic” and “Burning of the Midnight Lamp” changed when the foundation was handled in a Band of Gypsys style. While Redding and Mitchell’s performances worked for the psychedelic chaos of Jimi’s earlier work, Cox and Miles’ respective attacks were firmly rooted in rhythm and blues: Buddy drove the backbeat right through the wall, while Cox’ bass was fat as a Christmas goose. Both bassist Jared Michael Nickerson and drummer James “Biscuit” Rouse diligently stayed within their roles, giving the Experience material a strapping foundation that raised the set-closer “Purple Haze” to some serious heights.
After a palate-cleansing intermission, Reid and his partners slid right in where Band of Gypsys begins, nailing the creeping riff that sets the tone for “Who Knows.” The call-and-response lyrics were already a departure from Hendrix’ established vocal pattern, and the driving beat behind the piece let you know there was something happening here, and it was definitely different! Nickerson was Steady Eddie on the bass, allowing Rouse (Now only referred to – by Reid and the crowd – as “BISCUIT!”) to augment this and other pieces with his marvelous gospel-soaked vocals. In many ways, Rouse is what Buddy Miles turned out to be, with a voice far removed from the reedy tenor on the original recording of “Changes.” Reid told us that it was imperative that this project had “a drummer who could sing”, and Rouse sure fits that bill. But he also has a magnetism the crowd latched onto immediately, and the V-12 engine his drums provides never stopped snarling.
“Changes” and “Power of Soul” were absolutely spot-on, with Rouse’s riotous arrangement of the former tune getting us all dancing in our chairs. While Reid’s vocals didn’t have the unique personality of Hendrix’, Reid more than made up for it with a string of jaw-dropping solos that showed he, like Jimi, is “relentlessly himself.” Reid also talked about Hendrix’ love for other guitarists, name-checking Chicago’s Terry Kath and King Crimson’s Robert Fripp. I’ve always said you could hear both Buddy Guy and Ernie Isley in Hendrix’ playing, and both showed up on the show-closing “Machine Gun”, which was by turns hypnotic and towering, and the vibe was both set and resolved by Rouse, Nickerson, and Lassalle’s hushed chant, “FULLY automatic… SEMI automatic…”
I always cringe when I hear present-day artists are going to pay tribute to their heroes: More often than not, the tribute is always overshadowed by the original recordings. There was no danger of that with Band of Gypsys Revisited, as the quartet delivered a performance that was both special and personal, maintaining the players’ own distinct personalities while paying heartfelt tribute to an artist that turned the world upside down by the time he was 24. Some people may still not understand, but who wants to hang out with them, anyway?
Note: Nippertown has two reviews of this show. You can also read Don Wilcock’s perspective.