Hendrix, perhaps more than any rock guitarist (before or since) was willing -- and able -- to improvise, so it’s intriguing to hear his ever-evolving interpretations of these familiar songs.
More Hendrix? For anyone who has -- or who has not, for that matter -- been paying attention the last couple of years, a major initiative has been underway to get the world to experience the guitarist whose star refuses to fade. In fact, the purpose of these releases (ahem, aside from the money it will generate, of which more shortly) is at least in part to ensure that Hendrix is fully and properly appraised, more than forty years after his death.
The inevitable question must be asked: when is it too much of a good thing? With Hendrix, the answer for most folks would be "never". To this point, each wave of reissues and special editions has included rare or unreleased content, improved audio fidelity, and reasonable price points. As such, the novice and the aficionado have been provided ample incentive to upgrade or get acquainted with Hendrix’s catalog.
As is typically the case, releases like this will allow both fanatics and haters to have a field day. Is it overkill, another example of a label squeezing the soul out of a long dead legend? Or is it an imperative acquisition, a touchstone to be celebrated for both its quality and historical import?
As is inexorably the case, there is no easy answer. However, let it be forcefully stated that this new offering is definitely not an instance of the same old shit being repackaged, once again, for completists and chumps.
With this latest installment, attention is turned to Hendrix as live performer. The key, eagerly anticipated cornerstone of this roll-out is the definitive set of Winterland performances from October 1968. Way back in 1987, a compilation from this three-night stand was issued, and it was fairly revelatory. Fans in the know have long been aware that much of the material had been recorded, and now just about all of it (typical and understandable quality issues have made some of it impossible to release) is now available in the four-disc set Jimi Hendrix Experience: Winterland.
The question here is pretty simple: are you curious or insatiable enough to covet four discs, each set repeating the same songs? To be certain, this is Hendrix, so even if the sets were mirror images (they aren’t), it would be intriguing. However, there is some variety and, more to the point, none of the takes sound the same. Hendrix, perhaps more than any rock guitarist before or since was willing -- and able -- to improvise, so it’s intriguing to hear his ever-evolving interpretations of songs he had, at this point, played live a million times. Appreciating how differently he attacks the same songs, sometimes in the same evening, confirms that Hendrix approached this material as a launching pad for exploration.
As with most artists worth studying, hearing how they recorded in the studio informs an understanding of their live performances and vice versa. The Hendrix concerts captured for posterity unlock some of the mysteries involving what keeps him such a compelling and inimitable musical force. Even with the comparatively primitive technology the late-'60s studios afforded him, Hendrix was still a tinkerer, an experimenter and a perfectionist. Listen to the multi-tracked guitars throughout, say, Axis: Bold As Love, or especially the less refined (or less-embellished) track-in-progress of "Castles Made of Sand" from the recent West Coast Seattle Boy set. These miniature miracles, most clocking in at under three minutes, are brimming with ideas and innovation and underscore the ways in which Hendrix had to think up in his head before he worked it out in the studio. On stage, he simply had to play it. And Winterland, if nothing else, amply illustrates how prime Hendrix, in concert, was an occasion to savor.
Still, who but the most ardent enthusiast would want or need to own a set with multiple takes, however varied, of "Hey Joe", "Lover Man", "Are You Experienced?" and "Red House"? Add in a bonus interview, an extended, engaging conversation with Hendrix backstage at the Boston Garden from November 1968 and the question will still answer itself, depending on who is asking.
If you’re still on the fence, here’s some pros and cons. One issue that is worth mentioning involves a concern Hendrix himself struggled with: the sound of his own voice. He was notoriously uncomfortable, particularly in the early years, with his singing skills even though he consistently proved to be a capable, often extraordinary vocalist in the studio. Live, he is seldom as satisfying, even while his guitar playing soars. One hypothesis: listening to this material it is, once again, instructive to note how quickly and confidently Hendrix builds his extemporaneous mansions of sound. It is as though he is so busy flying the plane he doesn’t have the time -- or inclination -- to talk. As such, the vocals seem almost a distraction to him, and he occasionally sounds like he can’t quite keep up with all that he is thinking and feeling. As a result he is obliged to speed up his delivery to keep pace. Conclusion: much of this material would be stronger with less singing, and this observation comes from a writer who believes Hendrix is one of the great voices in rock.
For evidence of this proposition, there are several instances of instrumental jams that stand out above the rest. Hendrix’s cover of "Tax Free" is an awesome exhibition revealing how his mind works, transferring a unique energy and feeling to his fingertips. Both takes are over ten minutes and never become stagnant or repetitive; they are the musical equivalent of observing a great painter attacking the canvass. Another cover, of Cream’s "Sunshine of Your Love" employs the full range of his skill: the track smokes, slows to a standstill, and effuses the bluesy soul Hendrix could conjure at will. We are treated to an early rendition of the "Star Spangled Banner" -- the incendiary statement that he later immortalized at Woodstock. He also pays homage to Dylan, doing a more than credible cover of "Like a Rolling Stone", though it is on this particular track that Hendrix’s tribute would have been even more effective without vocals. The languid guitar-only introduction of the version on Disc Two is truly affecting, and hints at what might have been had Hendrix thought even more outside the box.
Before Winterland, the band had already recorded Electric Ladyland, but unfortunately the only preview of that as-yet unreleased work is a scintillating rundown of "Voodoo Child (Slight Return)",which is too bad since more tracks from this masterpiece would have raised the stakes considerably. Still, at this point the trio, with drummer Mitch Mitchell and bassist Noel Redding, was battle-tested and beyond comfortable playing to each member’s strengths. Redding is solid throughout and content to hold down the middle while Hendrix and Mitchell joust and instigate. Special mention for the ever-underrated drummer: Mitchell was fast and ferocious, but while his speed and dexterity made it sound like two men playing, he also kept everything anchored with a true timekeeper’s élan.
Here’s the bottom line: Hendrix was never bored and incapable of being boring. He was simply too brilliant a player -- and performer -- to sound uninspired when he strapped on his Stratocaster. He was, as we know, on the verge of new adventures and altogether different sounds with both the Band of Gypsys and the progressively idiosyncratic material that would comprise his work-in-progress First Rays of the New Rising Sun, and a great deal of that momentum spills out during these songs. This set, on its own, represents a series of successful concerts from a seminal trio at the height of their powers. More, it is a crucial historical document that transitions the early Hendrix sound and the unfettered, utterly rewarding ground he would break before his untimely death.
Winterland, then, must be regarded as a welcome release and a valuable addition to the ongoing reassessment (and remastering) of the proper Hendrix catalog. Taken together, this work is a canon, representing one of the great artists from the last century -- a genius we remain fortunate to have so much documented evidence of. For casual fans, it might be best to pick and choose tunes or at least listen to samples since, though there is a single-disc compilation, it seems disingenuous to recommend a collection that does not include "Tax Free", "Red House" or "Killing Floor". This won’t necessarily be the one you return to most often, at least by comparison with the earlier masterworks, but it is good and necessary that these recordings are finally seeing the light of day. As his estate continues to clear out the vaults, more than enough of us will be delighted to wait -- in a suspended state of hope and disbelief -- until there is yet more evidence to further establish Hendrix’s already unassailable legend.