[26 October 2011]
In 1970, Jimi Hendrix headlined the Isle of Wight festival in the UK. It was, by common consent, not his most outstanding performance, and was overshadowed by any number of earlier performances, including his Woodstock set three years earlier. Nonetheless, it was an interesting performance that featured older hits (“Purple Haze”, “Foxy Lady”) as well as newer tunes (“Machine Gun”, “Dolly Dagger”) and some out-of-left-field entries (the one-two opening salve of an instrumental “God Save the Queen” followed by a truncated “Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band”.)
Blue Wild Angel: Jimi Hendrix Live at the Isle of Wight presents this performance in its entirety, and there is plenty of note here, whether the viewer is a casual Jimi fan or a more rabid variety of follower. The song selection, as mentioned, is varied, and the band—Mitch Mitchell on drums, Billy Cox on bass—provide rock-solid backing. Sure, there are a couple of drum solos, but what the hell. Sign of the times and all that.
The performance footage is preceded by 20 minutes of scene-setting, featuring footage of concert organizers growing increasingly panicked at this festival that almost never happed—it ended up having twice the attandence of Woodstock, with a list of performers as long as your arm—interspersed with talking-head snippets of people waxing verbose about Jimi’s greatness and the historic nature of the event. Get through this and then you can settle in for an hour and 40 minutes of glorious noise.
Jimi himself appears in a less-than-joyous mood at times; he grows visibly impatient with the audience’s dull reaction to some tunes, and appears reluctant at times to trot out the old hits. But he’s nothing if not game, and the guitar wizardry is very much in evidence, so there’s little reason to complain.
Without a doubt the twin standouts of the set are the 15-minute rendition of “Machine Gun” and the ten-minute-plus “Red House”, both of them swaggering, apocalyptic tunes that push the limits of what is expected in a guitar-based “pop” song. Given their greatness, the audience’s apathetic response is all the more bewildering. Yes, the set started at one in the morning, but wake up, people! Or maybe the crowd noise just doesn’t come through on the soundtrack?
“All Along the Watchtower” is an early highlight, and a well-received one, while “Dolly Dagger” and “Message to Love” provide plenty of uptempo kick. The set ends with “Voodoo Child (Slight Return)” and “In From the Storm”, marred only by one of those drum solos—the shorter of the two, as it turns out. Jimi thanks the crowd quickly and leaves in a rush.
The sound on the DVD is excellent; played through an ordinary TV, there was a thinness to the bass which isn’t unexpected, but when higher-quality headphones are used, the sound is CD quality, mixed in 5.1 Surround Sound. The source film is crisp, with bright colors, but also occasional lines on the film stock. Given that the event occurred over 40 years ago, it’s difficult to get too upset about this.
The DVD contains a number of extras, some of which are less than compelling—a ten-minute talking-head interview with director Murray Lerner, and some snapshots of related memorabilia. These are faintly interesting but hardly crucial. By far the most valuable extra feature is something that hardcore Jimi fans will love. Seven of the songs in the set are presented using alternative footage from that used in the main film, ammounting to what is essentially a bonus performance of such masterpieces as “Red House”, “Foxy Lady”, and many others. Much of the bonus footage focuses on Jimi’s fretwork, an element that was unaccountably minimized in the main film in favor of facial expressions and widecreen stage shots.
The big standout here is “Hey Joe”, which isn’t included in the original film, perhaps because there is only one camera angle for the duration of the song. Has the rest of the footage been lost? If so, that’s a shame, as the performance is a scorcher. This is the first time it has been made available.
Blue Wild Angel was last released on DVD in 2002, and fans who have that disc will have to decide whether the new features make it crucial to invest in the new release. Guitar lovers—or classic rock lovers, or Jimi fans of any stripe—who don’t already own the concert would be well advised to pick it up. The combination of a strong performance coupled with innovative use of DVD technilogy (in the form of the bonus performance angles) make this a concert well worth having on hand.