[12 December 2013]
Be they clichés or universally accepted facts, there are a few things that most every music fan knows about the late, great Jimi Hendrix. One is that Hendrix was among the greatest and certainly most innovative guitarists of all time, doing things with his upside-down axe that few artists had even thought of, much less accomplished. Another of these facts everyone knows is that The Jimi Hendrix Experience has released exponentially more music since the time of the guitarist’s death than they did while he was still strumming and singing.
The fact that Hendrix was taken from us far too early has always left the question of what he could have accomplished and released had he survived. This same fact, coupled with the evidence that Hendrix had not yet peaked (and, thus, had never “experienced” a career downturn or the musical tide turning against him), has left fans hungry for more Hendrix for the past four decades… in whatever form that “more Hendrix” might take.
Luckily, unreleased material continues to be discovered that outshines the myriad repackagings of Hendrix’s best known songs into mix after mix after mix of “Greatest Hits” releases. Thus the 2013 release of The Jimi Hendrix Experience’s Miami Pop Festival live album has been greeted by the public with a big “Yes please.”
How significant can this release be, considering the fact that it consists entirely of songs that have been released? The truth is, this release is very significant. For one thing, these recordings were made at the huge May 1968 Miami Pop Festival and were never made available in any form until this live album (released 45 years after the show). How huge was the Miami Pop Festival (the first so-named show of 1968)? The concert (only a month from inception to stage) attracted thousands of fans and sported a roster that included Chuck Berry, John Lee Hooker, Steppenwolf and Frank Zappa in addition to the headlining role for the Jimi Hendrix Experience. In addition, the first ever live recordings of “Tax Free” and “Hear My Train A Comin’” were captured at this show, both showcasing Hendrix’s experimental and jamming side. This performance also serves as the bridge between Hendrix’s amazing Monterrey Pop Festival performance and his closing of the infinitely well-known Woodstock.
Of course the main attraction to any previously unavailable Hendrix tracks is the fact that Mister Jimi was such a virtuoso and experimenter that he never played the same song the same way twice, a fact especially evident in live performances. Sure, fans have heard each of these songs multiple times, but never performed quite this way and because of this, each track becomes immediately addictive.
The first track, containing only the concert’s “Introduction”, hardly lends itself to a promising album, however. This barely audible audio snippet is rife with tape hiss and indiscernible words and stage sounds. However, as the opening chords to “Hey Joe” thunder out from the stage (and your speakers 45 years later), the audio difficulties are overshadowed by the drums of Mitch Mitchell and the bass of Noel Redding… and especially the guitar of Jimi Hendrix himself. While the rhythm section has to undeniably be great to back such a performer, the dynamism and showy magnetism of Hendrix easily outshines the Experience’s other two capable members to the point that they are often, regrettably, forgotten. Over the ten included live tracks here, the band ravages and ravishes each song with wild love.
As good as “Hey Joe” is with Hendrix’s cool voice taking the lead, “Foxey Lady” practically blows it off the stage. Hendrix’s metallic chords are amplified by Redding’s rhythmic bass tapping while Mitchell goes into an almost Keith Moon haze with his wildly thrashing percussion sounds. When Hendrix hits the chorus and throws in guitar leads to echo his own voice, one is hard pressed to believe that there were only three people on that stage. Spoiler Warning: the solo has to be heard to be believed.
The Experience slows down for the funky “Tax Free”, which lasts eight minutes and twenty-one seconds in this version. “Tax Free” was made to be played live with Hendrix burning up the fretboard and forcing the song to speed itself up as he progresses through these amazing sounds. One can imagine the workout Redding and Mitchell experienced behind their frontman. This leads to our first of two versions of “Fire”, which exceeds the studio version in speed and energy by a country mile. “Fire” also shows how raw the concert was with the backing vocals to the chorus often missing, with Hendrix having to back himself, with difficulty. It’s a great listen for the real Hendrix fan.
“It’s nothin’ but a jam anyway, you know?” Hendrix says in his natural introduction to “Hear My Train A Comin’”, which he claims the band only did once before. The raw, loud blues coming from Hendrix’s inverted Stratocaster is anything but “nothin’”. This slow blues jam runs almost as long as “Tax Free” at seven minutes and forty one seconds and is infinitely listenable.
The proceedings speed up again with this show’s energetic and performance of “I Don’t Live Today”, which features Hendrix smoothly singing over his tremolo-distorted guitar playing and gives way to Hendrix bellowing out the chorus before the rollercoaster ride of a guitar solo.
Another slow blues song follows in the form of “Red House” with Hendrix jamming for a full twelve minutes and seven seconds with Redding and Mitchell backing him at only the right times, letting Hendrix’s guitar blaze the trail. At any speed, Hendrix is anything but “safe”. The color theme continues with a relatively standard version of “Purple Haze”. While certainly not “unimpressive”, this version feels so close to the studio version that this closer feels nearly by the numbers. That is hardly dissatisfying, considering “the numbers” of this number are stellar, but if this feels like a slightly more raw version of the studio track, that’s because it pretty much is. That said, Hendrix’s wail of “Yea-ah, Purple HAZE” really brings that live feel back, as does the punching live finale of the track.
Many fans and casual listeners will decry the absence of such Hendrix classics as “Crosstown Traffic”, “Voodoo Chile”, “Have You Ever Been (To Electric Ladyland)” and Hendrix’s version of Bob Dylan’s “All Along the Watchtower”, but considering the fact that none of these would be released or recorded until October of 1968, simple math explains why these were impossible to include. However the Miami Pop Festival did continue to a second day… a day that was sadly rained out by fierce thunderstorms. All that remains of this shortened afternoon performance are reprises of “Fire” and “Foxey Lady”, both raw, great to hear and great to have included, but with only ten songs on the entire album the fact that two of them are repeats may turn off some fans.
That would, of course, be quite a shame as the entire package is an amazing groove and features Hendrix at a pivotal time for his band and sounding great. Also included in this set is a (mostly) full color booklet with a great many photos from the festival with Hendrix both on and off stage (almost always looking like he’s having a great time). These pictures accompany a very fine essay by Bob Santelli, which puts this performance in historical context. The cover photo alone, with Hendrix singing and jamming on his upside-down Strat, is enticing and captures in one frame the energy he delivers to this entire performance. If that’s not enough to raise the hackles of any true Jimi Hendrix Experience fan, then check your pulse… you may be dead.