Another Jimi Hendrix greatest hits compilation? Wasn’t 1993’s The Ultimate Experience enough? Or even 1998’s Experience Hendrix? Well, yes and no. Part of the reason for this compilation may have to do with the Hendrix family’s recent acquisition of Hendrix’s recordings. They have authorized the re-release of the Jimi Hendrix Experience’s three studio albums (original LP artwork intact), as well as a slew of rarities and outtakes albums, including First Rays of the New Morning Sun, South Saturn Delta, and last year’s four-CD box set, The Jimi Hendrix Experience. In many ways, this release is a testament to the hard work and perseverance of the Experience Hendrix team—they have worked hard to put together quality Hendrix recordings, and this record provides a nice sampling from all the work they’ve done over the last few years.
On the one hand, Voodoo Child covers much of the same ground as the two previous Hendrix “best of” releases of the 1990s. Early classics like “Purple Haze”, “Hey Joe”, “Fire”, and “The Wind Cries Mary” are included, as well as highlights from the later Hendrix period, like “Voodoo Chile (Slight Return)”, “Angel”, and, of course, Hendrix’s transcendent and mind-warping rendition of the “Star Spangled Banner” at Woodstock. Disc One of this two-CD set complements these obligatory hits with some alternate versions of such tracks as “Highway Chile”, “Spanish Castle Magic”, “Stone Free”, and “All Along the Watchtower” (all taken from last year’s four-CD box set). These alternate versions, however, are less than exhilarating.
“All Along the Watchtower” is very similar to the Electric Ladyland original, except that it is muddied by a sloppy bass line (Hendrix’s first stab at his famous ousting of regular Experience bassist Noel Redding?) and uneven production. “Spanish Castle Magic”, however, is vastly different from the original. What was a tight three-minute hard-rock track on 1967’s Axis: Bold as Love here sprawls out into a six-minute jam. While it is interesting to see the track in a looser, less refined context, this alternate take is hardly a revelation.
The real treat of the studio tracks on Disc One is the inclusion of “Izabella” and “Stepping Stone” from the rarely heard original Band of Gypsys single. “Izabella”, well known from live Band of Gypsys performances like Woodstock, absolutely cooks. Hendrix’s anti-Vietnam tale of a soldier missing his lover back home is funky and kicking, indicative of the turn Hendrix’s sound took towards more hard-headed funk and blues after his partnership with bassist Billy Cox and drummer Buddy Miles in the wake of the demise of the Experience. The call and response of Hendrix and his backup singers is celebratory and raucous, pleading and desperate—unlike some of his other later recordings (like “Hey Baby [New Rising Sun]”, included in this package as well), “Izabella” translates the reckless energy of Hendrix’s Band of Gypsys performances in an impeccable studio recording. The driving, sinister rockabilly sexuality of “Steeping Stone” also brims with vitality and abandon, making these two often unheard versions reason alone to hang onto Disc One.
Whereas the previous greatest hits compilations would give a smattering of Hendrix’s live shows, Voodoo Child devotes the entirety of Disc Two to Hendrix on stage. There are a fair amount of previously issued tracks, like “Machine Gun” from the Band of Gypsys album and readily available performances of songs like “Purple Haze” from San Diego in 1969 and “Hear My Train a Comin’” from Berkeley in 1970. Added to these, however, are a few tracks never before available through official release, like “Fire” and “Hey Joe” from the Winterland performance of October 12, 1968, “Red House” from the 1970 New York Pop Festival, and Hendrix’s famous dismantling of “Wild Thing” from the Monterey Pop Festival in 1967 (burning guitar and all).
These tracks flesh out the full picture of Jimi Hendrix as a performing artist. While the studio tracks show him to be a refined pop craftsman and sonic innovator, these live cuts exhibit his energy, bravado, and flair. Hendrix live walked the line between transcendent success and abysmal failure. The band is often sloppy and Hendrix’s vocals are often rushed, breathless, or awkwardly phrased. Despite this, Hendrix live, whether with the Experience or the Band of Gypsys, was a surging supernova of guitar fury and noisy distorted chaos climbing the walls of the amphitheater—chaos just barely contained within the acceptable limits by Hendrix, equal part shaman and organizer, unleashing the spirits yet somehow managing to rein them in.
Nowhere is this more apparent than on the blistering cover of Chuck Berry’s “Johnny B. Goode” from Berkeley in 1970. Hendrix shyly apologizes for the impromptu jam before tearing into the most famous opening guitar lick in history. The band trucks behind Hendrix as he struggles with the rhythm and speed of the lyrics, breathlessly falling behind the pulsating rhythm. But as Hendrix unleashes his solo, the song explodes. Just as Berry took the guitar to places no one thought it could go, so does Hendrix. Riffing on the American rock master, Hendrix’s solo is chaotic and swirling, long and whining, a wave of distortion intersecting with the classic Berry licks in a bizarre and unforgettable passing of the torch of rock and roll innovation.
All in all, Voodoo Child has a little bit of something for everybody. Most of the hits are here, as are rarities and some thrilling live performances. Because of this, Voodoo Child gives the most comprehensive picture of Jimi Hendrix in all his creative facets. We hear him at his glorious studio best, we hear his less than stellar studio experimentation, and we hear his sometimes wildly exhilarating, sometimes horribly messy, live performances. This collection gives us a full picture of Jimi Hendrix—always experimenting, always pushing the limits of conventional guitar rock, always willing to put it all out there at the risk of looking like a fool. In his rendition of “Johnny B. Goode”, Hendrix is both maestro and fool. Voodoo Child shows us the wonderful complexity of Hendrix, towing that line between the foolish and the transcendent, the forgettable and the unforgettable.