The second disc might be the most interesting for Hendrix aficionados, as it is crammed with early sketches and alternate mixes of familiar favorites (“Long Hot Summer Night”, “Angel”) and specific takes that were improved upon for the official albums (“Fire”, “May This Be Love”). Listening to the stripped-down “Are You Experienced?” illuminates how busy Hendrix and Chandler were in that studio. Also, considering the relatively low budget and short timeframe of these sessions, we understand how little was left to chance. Jimi was certainly creating and refining on the spot, but he also came to each recording with an obvious idea of exactly what he wanted to do. Nowhere is this more apparent than the early take (sans bass) of “Castles Made of Sand”. Hearing the lead guitar without the subsequent overdubs helps us analyze how Hendrix constructed these mini epics, and also savor the ways in which he made all those sounds. This trial run, where Hendrix is still struggling to find the ideal speed and feeling, offers a clinic in the ways he balanced subtle and dramatic elements to capture, in the studio, what he already heard in his head. After digesting this, one is compelled to return, for the millionth time, to the master take from Axis: Bold as Love and undergo that familiar shock of recognition.
And then there is the new shit. “Little One”, featuring Traffic’s Dave Mason on sitar (!), precedes the Indian fusion of Bitches Brew by more than two years. It was technically recorded early in the Electric Ladyland sessions, and if it is hard to imagine where it could have fit in, it is much stronger in its way than “Little Miss Strange”. “Cat Talking to Me” is another previously unreleased jam with a furious lead that anticipates “South Saturn Delta”—only trippier—and we get a fascinating cover of the Band’s “Tears of Rage”. Among the embarrassment of riches are two songs recorded two days apart, one of which is familiar, the other one that soon will be. First, we get an expanded alternate take of the stunning instrumental “New Rising Sun”, which plays as a kind of hybrid of the phasing from “1983 (A Merman I Should Turn to Be)” and the new textures he would create on “Drifting”. Having had horribly edited and/or tinkered with versions, this definitive take should take its rightful place as an indispensable gem in the catalog. Next is the studio workout “Calling All the Devil’s Children”, which finds the band—and the assorted guests Jimi encouraged at his sessions circa ’68, and which drove Chandler to distraction during the making of Electric Ladyland—blowing off some steam while creating a sonic brushfire.
The third disc gets deeper into the frenzy of activity and inspiration Hendrix experienced in ‘68/’69, post-Electric Ladyland, when he began actively exploring new ideas and sound combinations, and collaborating with old friends Buddy Miles and Billy Cox. Virtually all of this material will be new to even dedicated Hendrix fans (serious fans will likely own copies from various bootlegs and semi-official releases). We get a studio jam session entitled “Hear My Freedom” (with an unidentified organist) and an alternate version of “Room Full of Mirrors” which segues directly into another original, “Shame, Shame, Shame”. There is another rundown of “Hound Dog” that is reminiscent of the version from the BBC Sessions, as well as intriguing live renditions of “Purple Haze”, “Fire”, and “Foxey Lady”. Of particular note is the ’69 live version of “Star Spangled Banner”, evidence that Jimi’s incendiary performance at Woodstock was not the first time he set his sights on that anthem. The most intriguing and enigmatic track is the prolonged studio pas de deux “Young/Hendrix”, featuring jazz legend Larry Young: for over 20 minutes the two trade licks, quotes, and a tireless stream of ideas. Another most welcome rarity is “Mastermind” with (excellent) vocals by Larry Lee, where the band perfects the rough idea they fleshed out, with mixed results, at Woodstock.
Disc Four pulls together more odds and sods from various bootlegs, although most of these versions—courtesy of still-existing master tapes—should now be considered close to complete and as definitive as we can expect. Curiosities abound, from an inspired live sprint of “Stone Free” and an expanded instrumental run-through of “Freedom”. “Everlasting First”, from 1970, features Hendrix playing along with Arthur Lee and Love; this is an alternate take which can replace the truncated version previously available only on Love’s False Start album. “Red House”, one of the first songs the Experience recorded, was a personal favorite that Hendrix reworked constantly in concert. The version here, from 1970, might be the most expressive and satisfying he ever laid down.
Two highlights of the final disc, and the entire collection, are the previously unreleased “Burning Desire” and an unedited version of “Hey Baby (New Rising Sun)” which restores the missing first section (“Bolero”). “Burning Desire” is just under nine minutes of the guitarist (accompanied by Billy Cox and Buddy Miles) exploiting virtually every weapon in his arsenal while boasting some new tricks for good measure. It is a non-stop merry-go-round of riffs, blues motifs, and pyrotechnics that could only come from one set of strings, and should take a place amongst the all-time Hendrix masterpieces. Until now, we’ve only had the six-minute version of “Hey Baby (New Rising Sun)”; it’s finally been revealed that on July 1, 1970 the tapes rolled for five minutes and 31 seconds beforehand, recording a track entitled “Bolero”. It is unforgivable that we’ve had to wait this long to hear the appropriate version of what turned out to be one of Hendrix’s final statements, but of course we must be grateful for the overdue opportunity. The set ends on a sweet but somber note with “Suddenly November Morning”, a home recording from the spring of 1970. This work-in-progress clearly was meant to be further developed in the studio, and at the very end we hear a few lines of what would become “Drifting”—one of the many songs Hendrix was assembling for the final album he never quite completed.
As remarkable as all this music is, the inclusion of a 90-minute documentary is, needless to say, almost too much of a good thing (almost). Jimi Hendrix Voodoo Child uses letters, diary entries (read by Funkadelic alum and funk legend Bootsy Collins), as well as rare interview and concert footage, to examine Jimi’s young years, military experience, early struggles, and inevitable ascendency. Postcards, cocktail napkins, and hotel stationary with scribbled lyrics along with family photographs underscore the obvious love and care that went into compiling this joyous document. Seeing Jimi speak and listening to his reflections and predictions is occasionally unsettling, but mostly awe-inspiring.
In the end, it always comes back to the same impasse: once we’ve gotten beyond the music (which we never get beyond, because, thus far, there has always been new material, causing us to celebrate our good fortune and hope we might get more) we catch ourselves asking the two questions that can never be answered: why and what. Why did it have to end so abruptly, so appallingly? And then, if and when we allow ourselves, the attempt at imagining what else there could have been… what else he would have left for us if he had not accidentally left us behind?