mon 16/12/2019

Is this Jimi Hendrix’s greatest posthumous release? Producer Eddie Kramer talks about a legendary live album | reviews, news & interviews

Is this Jimi Hendrix’s greatest posthumous release? Producer Eddie Kramer talks about a legendary live album

Is this Jimi Hendrix’s greatest posthumous release? Producer Eddie Kramer talks about a legendary live album

The complete set of Hendrix's Band of Gypsys performances at the Fillmore East is released this week

Fifty years on: Band of Gypsys is one of rock's great live albums

This week, one of the finest gems in the entire Hendrix catalogue finally sees the light of day in its full unedited glory – Songs for Groovy Children comprises all four sets from the Band of Gypsys New Year’s Eve 1969-70 residency at the Fillmore East in New York City.

Originally recorded to free up Hendrix from a contract he’d signed earlier in his career, while transitioning from the R&B circuit towards his first psychedelic flowering, Band of Gypsys, released in April 1970 was the only full live album he ever sanctioned under his own name. It is one of rock’s great live albums. An expanded two-disc compilation appeared in 1999 – now long out of print and with vinyl copies going for three-figure sums; in 2002 Dagger Records put out a set of rehearsals from a studio called Baggys, recorded a few weeks before the gigs on 18-19 December 1969; and a 2CD set of the first night’s first show came out in 2016.

While posthumous live and studio sets have flowed from the estate in recent decades, these recordings have remained in silent storage. But with Songs for Groovy Children, everything that was captured on tape over those two nights can be heard again for the first time, in full, in sequence, and in a newer, superior transfer from the original tapes to digital. There are 43 songs across five CDs, comprising 11 unreleased tracks, six restored to their unedited glory, and another 12 back in print for the first time in years. (Note: online setlists indicate that five performances, two incomplete, are missing from the first night's second set.) 

Beginning with the New Year’s Eve set’s first song, “Power of Soul”, it takes in four extraordinary accounts of “Machine Gun”, one of the greatest examples of how far rock could go under Hendrix’s (or anybody’s) direction, as well as gargantuan versions of “Stone Free”, “Hear My Train”, “Burning Desire”, and the wonderfully funky “Who Knows”, which appears nowhere else (although a bootleg exists of the last aborted Band of Gypsys show at Madison Square Garden on 28 January 1970 which began – and ended – with an 11-minute version).

Those R&B roots ran deep and spread wide, and what grew out of them, towering over all the rest, was a music of extraordinary depth, width and scaleThe Hendrix estate, in its various guises, has been criticised for some of the posthumous product it released – especially the controversial Alan Douglas albums of the 1970s, from which he wiped all but Hendrix’s parts, and reeled in stodgy 1970s rockers to augment the tracks. All that is like a memory of a bad trip in light of Songs for Groovy Children, featuring Hendrix in ascendant and resplendent with the funkiest backing he ever had. These performances are so in the pocket that once heard, they stay there for good. The new songs fashioned by the power trio are the most striking, but there’s room, too, for funky, deep-down new versions of “Foxy Lady”, “Voodoo Chile” and even a “Wild Thing” for a touch of Monterey-era psychedelic nostalgia.

In the set’s detailed booklet, bassist Billy Cox emphasises the roots of this power trio – in the R&B of the early to mid Sixties when each of them were paying their dues backing the likes of Wilson Pickett, Little Richard, Gatemouth Brown and Etta James. Those roots ran deep and spread wide, and what grew out of them, towering over all the rest, was a music of extraordinary depth, width, scale – Hendrix in the midst of “Machine Gun” handles the dynamics of his massive sound like a storm god, riffs the size of continental plates spinning out of his Stratocaster. These are arguably the greatest concerts of his career.

It was producer Eddie Kramer sat with Hendrix a few weeks after these four concerts to edit and mix the first Band of Gypsys album, and it is Kramer who again took his seat behind a 21st century desk in LA with Hendrix’s sister Janie and co-producer John McDermott to prepare the complete set for release.

Talking from his home in Toronto, he took me through the process of working with Hendrix then, and returning to this music, 50 years later, as both a witness and a participant.

Jimi Hendrix at Fillmore East“I don’t know where the title comes from,” he tells me, first off, “but maybe it’s something he said at the concert.” Kramer didn’t actually attend the shows – he was busy assembling Electric Lady studios at the time – but he remembers their mixing sessions. “When it came time for Buddy Miles’s parts, where Buddy would take off on his own, whooping and yapping and doing his thing, Jimi would put his head down on the board and say, ‘shut the fuck up Buddy’. But, you know, they had a great relationship. Buddy could make him laugh. He wanted to have something that was funky. Roots blues, R&B-based – which was all, obviously, a part of his musical DNA. And I think the time was right for him to put that band together. He liked playing with Buddy. Buddy was the polar opposite of Mitch, in terms of feel. You know that classic statement Mitch made: ‘He’s like a fucking cement mixer?’ And it was true. Buddy was the right fit for this trio. Together, they were just incredible. Just so tight. It was the right band for the right moment in time, and Jimi really enjoyed playing with them, he really enjoyed the moment.

“I think it took a left turn right after that, though. I think Jimi wanted to get back to the Experience, and interestingly enough if you listen to what Mitch was doing after the Band of Gypsys, you can hear a distinct change in his drumming. It was much funkier. It was like he thought, hmmm yeah I see the direction. I’m gonna simplify some of what I’m doing and put a lot more funk in it. You really hear that in the next few months leading up to Cry of Love. And, by the way, I thought that band was fantastic. Mitch and Billy and Jimi were remarkable together. Not to take away from Band of Gypsys of course.”

What’s it like, I ask him, to return to music you first produced with the man himself 50 years ago, and to produce it again, in full? “I feel very connected to it,” he says. “It’s an honour. It was an honour working with Jimi Hendrix in the first place. Let’s get that straight. He changed so many people’s lives, including mine, and the trajectory of my life, having been associated with him. The thrill of sitting down and putting on a tape of Jimi Hendrix – you can’t help it.”

He and Janie Hendrix, with co-producer John McDermott, spent considerable time in LA going through the original tapes to prepare for Groovy Children. “The condition, thank God, of all of them, was good, and that’s because for a certain period of time – we started recording in late 1966 all the way through 1970, and the Cry of Love album – all tape manufacturers used a particular type of secret ingredient. Right after that time most governments made a stand against using this ingredient, and tape manufacturers scrambled like mad trying to figure out how to replace it, and the tapes that followed were crap. And that secret ingredient? Whale oil. Which was the adhesive they used [to bind the iron oxide in magnetic tape]. With the banning of whaling, it was no longer available.” Which meant a much-degraded quality of tape life for all the music that followed. “But with Jimi’s music, I can play any of those tapes today and they transfer perfectly.

While Kramer already had recourse to an earlier generation of digital conversions, for Groovy Children, these too are new, and of higher quality. “Technology has advanced so much, and I’ve done new analog-digital conversions with a programme called PURL, and it really helps. It increases the sonic presence, at the low end and the top end just that much more, and makes it sound much better. So these recordings are the best sounding since that first Band of Gypsys album. And we’ve tried to make it as unadulterated as possible.”

The life of the Band of Gypsies was all to brief. The aborted Madison Square Garden show revealed internal structural damage that couldn’t be repaired. Did Kramer see the end coming so quickly? “I wasn’t surprised that he didn’t do anything more with Buddy Miles,” Kramer admits. “The record speaks for itself – there was only one Jimi Hendrix and he felt Buddy was stealing his thunder. Which was a shame. I mean, he loved his playing, there’s no question about it, and there are great tracks Jimi recorded with Buddy Miles. The legacy is there. The guy was incredible, it was fatback, you know. He was a rock. It wasn’t that imaginative but that didn’t matter, because of what he brought to the party.”

Having prepared the complete set for release almost 50 years after first working on those tapes with Hendrix, what performances does he treasure the most? If there’s one song to choose from those four sets, which would it be? “Right off the bat, any of the Machine Guns are just ridiculously fabulous,” he says. “And while one or two are actually on a higher level than the others, you could take them all and put them all together and you’d have – who was it who said that after hearing “Machine Gun” you just had to sit down for a week? But it’s true, you know. The thing about “Machine Gun” and many of the other songs across these four live shows, is Jimi’s use of dynamics. It’s just so brilliant, His ability to just shut down and then go BAM, or bring it up gradually. He was an absolute master of dynamics. And Billy was right with him, and they’d whipped all that into shape in a couple of months to get those dynamics – and I think they reach a peak with “Machine Gun”. The other songs on there – “Who Knows”, “Hear My Train”, “Izabella”… you could go on and on. If you sit down and listen and analyse every single song from each show and look for the high points and low points, everyone will have a different answer, but you’ll always come back to “Machine Gun”.

Listen to a previously unissued performance of "Ezy Rider" from the first night's second set

@CummingTim

Songs for Groovy Children features Hendrix in ascendant and resplendent with the funkiest backing he ever had

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Comments

The box set is not complete. 5 songs remain unissued from the 2nd set. Certainly not the most important posthumous release.

Thanks for the comment. Wrong on both counts. Unless you want to contradict the producer who worked on this in 1970 and 2019, all of what they have on tape is in this set, and it is in my estimation among the most important of his posthumous releases, and the finest of the live ones.

Dear Tim, Not only are some songs missing from the box, but some of the songs actually included in the box are edited and reduced in length. Exactly the same thing that happened with the Winterland box a few years ago. Interestingly enough, some of those missing songs were later released on singles and other reissues (Purple Box redux). As to who's right and who's wrong, who's lying and who isn't, and who has something to gain or not by declaring one thing or the other, you do the math. Best regards.

I read several comments on the Fillmore East FB page from people who were there who say that some of the encores are missing. One even provided a tape.

Kramer is always downing the BOG's, especially Buddy Miles. Most of the negative vibes people spew concerning the BOG's are directly coming from his quotes, most of which came after Jimi died. NOT GOOD!!!

This set is not complete. Listen to the numerous bootlegs out there. Missing songs and edited songs are on this set.I will contradict the producer who worked on it and I will bring recordings to show otherwise. Now it's possible some of these missing track were not professionally recorded, but the producers should be up front about that. Possibly the producers didn't have access to all the tapes. I don't know because the producers aren't saying anything about it and no one seems to be asking the producer. That said this is a wonderful release with excellent sound. I am enjoying a lot. Some explanations about choice is all I would like to know.

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