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Jimi Hendrix

Jimi Plays Berkeley

(Legacy Recordings; US DVD: 10 Jul 2012)

An early death is, of course, generally “good” (if you will) for your artistic reputation unless, like Elvis, say, you were on the downside early enough in your career to be remembered as much for the beautiful young god swinging his hips to Jailhouse Rock as for his bloated final performances whipping off karate (or whatever) chops to a bewildered audience. Elvis didn’t die too soon; he died too late.

In November of this year, Jimi Hendrix, had he not vanished so soon, would be 70 years old, a fact that invites, if nothing else, pause. Seventy, really? Hendrix, if you think about it, could never be 70; we wouldn’t, we couldn’t, accept him at 70. Janis, perhaps; maybe even Morrison, an aged lizard king whose “poetry” had finally devolved to the banal rant it was rapidly headed toward—but not Jimi Hendrix. Hendrix was wired to be the guitar virtuoso of our lifetime, and he had to die young to make it so. He was too gifted, too singularly brilliant to live a long life. Godlike, Hendrix had to die early in order to save us and achieve divinity—he did, and he did.

Not so much to chronicle his Christ-like demise but to remind us—as if we need it—of the man’s transcendent genius, Legacy Recordings (the catalog division of Sony Music) has just released a restored and newly expanded edition of Jimi Plays Berkeley on DVD and Blu-ray.

Made from a new, digitally-restored transfer from the original 16mm negative, Jimi Plays Berkeley (a May 1970 concert) premieres more than 15 minutes of previously unseen documentary and performance footage of Hendrix classics including “Voodoo Chile (Slight Return)”, “Machine Gun”, and “Hear My Train a Coming”, not featured in the original film release.

Why this concert, when undoubtedly many others survive in the Hendrix archive? Because, other than the fact that Hendrix would die four months later, it presents one of the surest, most confident of Hendrix’s performances —his playing was, as with many of his works, both loose and extraordinarily dialed in. He was confident (always that), easy going, and intense when he needed it to be. Hendrix, certainly here, could take a song and spin it numerous ways—get lost in it, wander through the wilderness with it—without losing the overall sense of the piece. His improvisation always had a larger point to it.

To watch Hendrix playing Machine Gun on Blu-ray is to understand that the man played the guitar quite unlike anyone else. Many musicians have suggested that when they’d heard Hendrix they considered giving up the instrument all together.

As an added bonus, the newly expanded Jimi Plays Berkeley includes an audio-only presentation of Jimi’s complete Berkeley second show mixed in 5.1 surround sound. Showcasing 67 minutes of music the second set concert recordings include Lover Man, Stone Free, and Hey Joe, among many others.

According to the liner notes, Jimi had been playing live often, and desired an extended return to the studio, but his management wanted to capitalize on such venues as the recent Monterey and Woodstock festivals, which propelled Hendrix to fame. The details were eventually worked out and there was great demand for tickets. “All of the available tickets for both shows were quickly snapped up and on the evening of the concerts, more than a thousand empty-handed fans were turned away.”

Yes, Jimi plays with his teeth and by thrusting the guitar through his legs; these were stage hallmarks. But they were never gimmicks; they were a part of Jimi’s showmanship—and showman he was. Electrifying is overused, but watching the Blu-ray you can see that he was this, and more. The Blu-ray, more than most other recordings of Hendrix, capture the man and his music in a fresh and startling way, perhaps aided by the fact that he was performing in front of a smaller crowd than had been usual for him lately. There’s an intimacy here that eludes other documented performances.

The release of the Blu-ray and the CD on the part of Legacy Recordings is nothing short of fantastic. They give us a Hendrix we’ve seen before, certainly. But they also show us a man who is so completely at the top of his form, and so confident in his playing, that it holds up to multiple viewings and listenings—always an indicator of video and audio quality.

Hendrix was 28 when the Berkeley concert took place, and would be dead in a few months. What a fine way to celebrate one of his finest concerts and sustain the memory of our guitar-playing savior.


Stephen Foster, a long-time music critic, is Executive Director of the Durham Art Guild.

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