Live and (mostly) prime Hendrix. 'Nuff said.
So I get this one, and I’m thinking, what the hell? Another Hendrix album? How many of them are there are now? I swear, Hendrix is like the Tupac Shakur of the 1960s; he was only making music for a short time toward the end of his life, but every few years they release another album of "previously unheard" material or reissue some obscure live album or compilation or something (I wonder if they’ll still be releasing Tupac albums in 2040?).
But then I’m thinking, well yeah, they release and re-release this stuff, but that’s because it’s so damn good. Hendrix was one of the most well-rounded talents to ever be captured on tape. His three albums with the Experience frequently beat the Beatles at their own game of studio wizardry, his live material showcased an incredible tight, virtuosic trio. His songs drew from the blues, R&B and rock that he had been playing as a sideman for years, but bested most of his former bosses’ material and paved the way for new innovations in funk, jazz and rock for decades to come. His voice was incredibly deep and plaintive, capable of both ferocity and tenderness, but he also possessed a beautiful falsetto. And of course, his guitar playing, which set the bar not only for future generations, and not only for his peers including guitar "God" Eric Clapton, but also those that had come before and influenced Hendrix -- people like B.B. King and Buddy Guy. Hendrix was one of those guys who possessed such a rare and extraordinary talent that he could basically do anything in a musical context that he put his mind to. So I say, hell yeah, give me some more Hendrix.
This particular album is a reissue of a live compilation put together in the early 1970s by Eddie Kramer, Hendrix’s longtime studio hand, one of those few men that Hendrix trusted to bring his artistic vision to fruition. Many of the songs come from after the Experience broke up and Hendrix’s old army buddy Billly Cox was brought in on bass, but most of the tracks feature the classic Experience lineup of Mitch Mitchell on drums and Noel Redding on bass.
Luckily for me, this coincidentally has all my favorite Hendrix songs presented in versions that are mostly much longer than their studio counterparts, especially "Red House", "Spanish Castle Magic" and "Voodoo Child (Slight Return)", all of which are stretched out to over 10 minutes each. These tracks are all scorching hot, with a band that could play their asses off and had the oft-talked about telepathy that any great live band has. These guys all play with power and finesse while never stepping on each other’s toes. They play very off-the-cuff, making things up as they go along, like after Mitchell’s drum solo in "Spanish Castle Magic" where they spontaneously break into a chunk of Cream’s "Sunshine Of Your Love" before launching back into the main song without skipping a beat.
Unfortunately, the other two members of the Experience often get overshadowed for their role in the band largely because the guy whose shadow they were standing in was Jimi friggin’ Hendrix. This would be the case two decades later when people often neglected to mention the role that Double Trouble played in the career of Stevie Ray Vaughn. But Mitchell and Redding were a supreme rhythm section. They had to be in order to be able to keep up with Hendrix. Mitchell was, for my money, one of the best drummers of the era, far superior to favorites like John Bonham, and his aforementioned solo is much, much more listenable than that of some of Zeppelin’s self-indulgent jam excursions. Redding, meanwhile, was the rock that held everything in place, which is exactly what the bass player in any good band should be. The bass instruments have been playing the role of anchor in musical ensembles for hundreds of years, and Redding holds it down incredibly well, adapting to the shifts instantly as Hendrix introduces them, like he does in this version of "Red House", probably the best version of one of the greatest 12-bar blues songs ever played. The band swings into a number of permutations and extrapolations of the typical 12-bar form with ease and candor, each one more relaxed and fluid than the last, before Hendrix takes an extended unaccompanied solo, finally exploding into one of the purest distillations of the blues that I’ve ever heard. This track is the sound of emotion dripping out of the limbs of three performers with absolutely no filters and no compromises. Unfortunately this is another side of the Experience that is neglected; for all the talk of waving their freak flag high, they were at their best when they were just playing the blues. And it’s often forgotten that as much as they belonged to the hippie psychedelic movement, they also belonged to the British blooz movement of bands like Fleetwood Mac, Ten Years After and Free (Hendrix was American but Mitchell and Redding were both from England).
Likewise, Hendrix seems to be one of the very few musicians of his time or any other time who could remain popular and also rely so heavily on noise. Look at his use of feedback on any number of songs, including the version heard here of "I Don’t Live Today", where he indulges in all manners of high-pitched squeals, low rumbles and several other shades of feedback. Now conversely, look at no wave bands from the late 1970s. None of them could get away with making that kind of noise, but Hendrix can. Why? Maybe because noise was only one component of each song. That song wouldn’t be as powerful if it didn’t have that hook, that groove, that swagger. The lesson here that Hendrix provided for future artists was that if you give the people some of what they want (in the form of a bad ass rock tune) they’ll be more willing to take the weird stuff (the feedback). Then again, maybe I’m wrong and everyone back then was cool with the feedback and dissonance ‘cause they were high as hell. Either way, as a lover of noise, I’m alright with it.
Other highlights are the speedy, burning version of "Fire", the rollicking cover of "Johnny B. Goode" that beats Chuck Berry’s original (coincidentally, many of the autobiographical elements of Berry’s song could loosely be applied to Hendrix) and the version here of "Little Wing", which becomes even sweeter and therefore more touching on stage with the absence of the extra instruments and effects heard on the studio version.
There are a few problems here, though. Firstly, the sound quality isn’t quite as good as I had hoped it would be. The sound is just slightly muffled, and in particular the vocals sound a little thin. Then again, the performances are so damn electrifying that they sound good anyway. And really, despite the slight problems with the fidelity, plenty of Hendrix live albums and bootlegs sound pretty much the same, including Band of Gypsys, the only live album that Hendrix approved in his lifetime. So I can pretty much overlook that, especially in light of the fact that many "live" albums these days go through almost as much tinkering as the studio albums. What you get here is the pure, unadulterated stuff.
That said, there are a few head-scratching moments on the album. Among them is the introduction with the British national anthem (perhaps only included as a reference to Hendrix’s famous rendition of the American national anthem) that segues into a brief cover of the Beatles "Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band", included here probably for its rarity and as an example of one of the few artists that Hendrix openly venerated on stage. Unfortunately, it’s clear that Hendrix didn’t care enough to either learn all of the words or all of the song. Any number of songs could have opened the album in its place. After all, as I said earlier there is no drought of superb live Hendrix material in the vaults, so its inclusion here was a misstep in my opinion.
Also odd is the inclusion of "Blue Suede Shoes" in a version that doesn’t resemble Carl Perkins’ original very much at all. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but the feeling I got here was that the band was just messing around, jamming away and then at some point, Hendrix decided to add in the words to "Blue Suede Shoes". If this was indeed the approach, then again there is nothing wrong with it (blues musicians, as far back as recorded history goes, have often improvised and borrowed lyrics from other people’s songs), but if this is the case then it is a bit unfair to call this a true "cover". The performance is fine, as a band of this caliber would deliver, but the inclusion, again, feels odd, especially in light of the fact that this take was actually recorded during a rehearsal rather than an actual concert.
For those of you who had this on LP, if you’re looking for a straight reissue, this ain’t it. The two performances culled from the Royal Albert Hall concert from the original have been reissued elsewhere, but the fantastic version of "Voodoo Child (Slight Return)" takes their place. It’s probably an even trade. But regardless, this is a good album. If you dig Hendrix, the blues, psychedelica, rock music, etc. you’ll probably really dig this. Some of you who aren’t into the jammy aspects of Hendrix’s music should probably stay away, and for those of you who are completely unfamiliar with Hendrix, go pick up one of the studio albums or a greatest hits comp first, then make your way to this, or really, any of the other official Hendrix live albums. They’re all pretty good, and this one is no exception.