Peace, Love and Jimi
Say what you will about Experience Hendrix LLC and its aggressive campaign to merchandise every aspect of the Hendrix legacy. The fact remains that the company has been largely successful in culling the best available audio and video footage from the guitarist’s brief but shining career. This process of quality control has been an ongoing (and daunting) task, as inferior recordings circulated with impunity for nearly 30 years. With the release of the twin DVD set showcasing Jimi’s memorable Woodstock performance, Experience Hendrix has done a tremendous service to aficionados the world over by adding another treasure to the archive.
The scope of the festival has become the stuff of legend, as much for the expansive roster of performers as for the congested, muddy conditions on that steamy August weekend back in 1969. Three days of peace, love and music yielded many powerful images, but none more than the iconic James Marshal Hendrix, clad in flowing beads and fringe, white Stratocaster in hand. Already an international sensation by the time he took the Woodstock stage, Hendrix had shed the power trio format in favor of a less confining jam band, playing his set as part of a sextet deemed Gypsy Sun and Rainbows. Backed by former Experience drummer, Mitch Mitchell, and old friends Billy Cox (bass) and Larry Lee (rhythm guitar), Hendrix added two percussionists to the mix, Juma Sultan and Jerry Velez. The expanded concept allowed Hendrix to direct his creative energies away from the expectations of his previous incarnation, and into something approaching free-form jazz.
The new direction of Hendrix’ artistic vision is what makes the Woodstock set so fascinating, with the DVDs chronicling the entire performance from not one, but two separate camera perspectives. Though offering up a handful of his recognizable hits, (“Foxey Lady”, “Fire”, and “Purple Haze”), Hendrix leads his band mates through otherwise uncharted waters, displaying his penchant for jamming and exploration without the strict confines of a standard song format. Equally noteworthy is Hendrix’ stage presence, as his emotions are clearly worn on his beaded sleeve: Viewers can see him frown in frustration at various technical problems, share visual cues with Cox and Lee, and make light of his earlier days as a sideman by engaging in a few choreographed dance steps. The music ebbs and flows with an engaging irregularity, but at no point is there a question as to who Woodstock’s more regaled performer was. And of course, there is the festival’s defining moment Hendrix’ mesmerizing version of the “Star Spangled Banner”.
Disc one contains Hendrix’ set as it has been traditionally viewed, yet disc two offers the rare opportunity to be onstage with the band. Young cinematographer/student Albert Goodman had worked his way into the mix, positioning himself to Hendrix’ far left. From this location, Goodman was able to capture what festival cameramen missed while reloading their own cameras: Hendrix’ second song of the morning, “Hear My Train a Comin’”. Goodman’s camera angle gives the footage a completely different value (in a behind the scenes manner) as Hendrix’ interactions with his fellow musicians are clear and constant.
The discs also include extensive interviews with many of the festival’s participants, as wonderful anecdotes resonate throughout. Producer Eddie Kramer describes the primitive recording conditions he was forced to endure, while festival promoter Michael Lang discusses the logistical difficulties inherent in the proceedings. Lee and Cox are particularly endearing as they reminisce about their fallen brother, and describe how the Gypsy Sun and Rainbows format came together. The interview segments also identify the most ironic aspect of Hendrix’ performance: the time when he actually took the stage. Originally scheduled for Sunday at midnight, Hendrix and his musical gypsies began playing early Monday morning, by which point many concert goers had already left the grounds. How sad that thousands missed out on one of music’s most important moments.
Due to the brevity of Hendrix’ career, every bit of live footage is an important contribution to his ongoing legacy. It can be argued as to which of his appearances was his greatest performance (from Monterey to Isle of Wight), but there is no debating that Hendrix’ Woodstock set defined an entire nation, as well as the guitarist himself. The twin DVDs are a lasting tribute, and a welcome addition to the Hendrix library.