Recently, Rolling Stone ran a feature on the one-hundred greatest guitarists of all time, and though it was worth flipping through to see who made the list and what positions they occupied, it held precisely zero suspense for the top spot. Of course, it was Jimi Hendrix and could have been no other, a fact even this lame, pander-to-the-younguns publication had to acknowledge. Nearly anyone who ever picks up a guitar even to fiddle around has had or is having dreams of being Hendrix, a man who blurred the boundaries between his instrument and his soul more visibly than any other rock musician. To watch him was to watch his Stratocaster disappear entirely into his body, becoming an appendage as natural as his arms. His vocabulary was limitless, his technique unmatched to this day. His was the axe that launched a thousand ships, each one nearly capsizing under the weight of Hendrix’s endless progeny.
As Jesus could tell you, having such an ample following means that countless competing and even mutually exclusive interpretations of your teachings vie to be seen as the true continuation of the legacy. With Hendrix, most listeners came away mimicking his flashiest moments—the lightning solos, the warped guitar effects, the deafening explosions of feedback. This, of course, is what made him such a hero to the white audience, but underneath it all was a greasy, down-home core that he had fortified in his rough years on the chitlin circuit, playing with such luminaries as the Isley Brothers and Little Richard. He may have expanded on that core to brilliant extents in his solo work, but he never forsook it. In a long-standing debate with his friendly rival, Eric Clapton, Hendrix insisted that the heart of the blues was rhythm, not the phrasing of the lead guitar. That he was right explains how he could venture a great distance from the old I-IV-V and still sound more blues than Clapton doing a sledgehammer take on “Spoonful” with Cream. He wasn’t interested in being a purist (i.e., pretentious thief), so the blues camp has never made quite as strong an effort to claim him as one of their own as might be expected for a man of his stature.
It comes as some surprise, then, that Martin Scorsese has attempted to do just that by including him in his Martin Scorsese Presents the Blues series. The project’s major flaw is its rockcentric view, one that, despite its obvious reverence for the blues, imagines it as something of a prelude rather than a self-contained art form. This is probably what lets Hendrix sneak in, but it winds up being good for everyone that he did. His compilation thankfully expands Hendrix’s blues beyond just “Red House”, an overrated and frankly boring song that still finds its way into countless bar-band set lists. A few other tracks from his three studio albums are included as well, but for the most part, the album is comprised of cuts either previously unreleased or contained only on his box set. Hendrix aficionados who already have the box will surely decry this as one more in a long line of rip-offs from the Experience Hendrix folks, but it’s nevertheless a nice grab for would-be completists on a budget.
Yet it’s much more than simply a collection of leftovers for miserly die hards. As revisionist history, it’s a minor triumph, revealing a side of Hendrix unknown to all but a few. (An earlier compilation, the simply titled Blues, prevents this from being a bigger revelation.) For other rockers, a blues album could wind up demonstrating little more than their conservative side, but this turns out to be one of Hendrix’s more adventurous posthumous affairs. A couple of duds clutter the proceedings, and epic jam “Voodoo Chile” distracts from the overall spirit, but once the album achieves momentum, it’s striking.
The best tracks skip over the wanky soloing and mold the genre in Hendrix’s image. Not many people know how to do this without sounding ignorant or disrespectful, but with grounding as firm as Hendrix had, he can make a song as far out as “It’s Too Bad” or “Blue Window” sound authentic even when the listener has little idea what it’s being authentic to. As with Scorsese’s largely stellar box set, this album demonstrates a diversity of the blues that may be the best-kept secret in all of pop music. If you’re in one of the countless bands dumb enough to think that all blues are supposed to sound like variations on “Red House”, either shell out the sizeable chunk o’ change it takes to acquire the Scorsese box set to learn from many masters or just pick up Hendrix’s album to learn from one who can do the work of about a dozen.