Honoring Jimi Hendrix, One Solo at a Time

Chrissie Dickinson
Chicago Tribune (TNS)

Jimi Hendrix was only 27 when he died in 1970, but his stratospheric impact still reverberates throughout the rock ranks.

Jimi Hendrix was only 27 when he died in 1970, but his stratospheric impact still reverberates throughout the rock ranks. The traveling multiartist concert Experience Hendrix Tour is a testament to the legacy of the iconic guitarist.

The tour features a large rotating cast of musicians that includes Chicago blues legend Buddy Guy, former Ozzy Osbourne guitarist Zakk Wylde and Mato Nanji from the blues-rock band Indigenous. Billy Cox — who played bass for Hendrix in a couple of lineups — leads the rhythm section on stage.

The rock extravaganza plays 29 dates across the country. Others on the tour include Jonny Lang, Dweezil Zappa, Chris Layton, Noah Hunt, Beth Hart, Ana Popovic, Henri Brown, the Slide Brothers, Scott Nelson, Tim Austin and Toronzo Cannon.

The event first took to the road in 2004 as a three-date tour on the West Coast. In 2008 it blossomed into a major national tour, and it has been going full-steam ever since.

One of the show’s mainstays is blues-rock guitarist Kenny Wayne Shepherd. With a career that began when he was still a teenager, Shepherd, now 39, has a string of hit blues albums under his belt and five Grammy nominations. He considers it an honor to participate in the Hendrix tribute shows.

“The amazing thing is sharing the stage with some of the greatest guitarists on the planet,” Shepherd says, calling from a tour stop in Colorado. “It’s an old-time revue type of show — a revolving door of talent. Sometimes the musicians play together, sometimes they are solo. It’s three hours of music. You get your money’s worth.”

Each artist does three to five songs. The material consists of songs Hendrix either wrote or covered during his career.

“Fans love the tour,” Shepherd notes. “The lineup gets them fired up. You see players on stage you wouldn’t expect to see together, like Buddy Guy and Zakk Wylde.”

Shepherd says one of the perks of participation is seeing firsthand how much Hendrix has influenced disparate players. Jimi’s reach stretches beyond genres and styles.

The guitar slingers assembled on the Experience tour individually absorbed the lessons of Hendrix. A native of Serbia, Popovic grew up jamming to her father’s blues and rock records in her home country before finding international fame as a player. In 2000 she contributed to the tribute album “Blue Haze: Songs of Jimi Hendrix.”

Also on the tour, Zappa is a musician in his own right and the son of rock iconoclast Frank Zappa. The Hendrix connection runs in the family — Dweezil’s late father bequeathed him a Fender Stratocaster guitar once owned by Frank’s pal Jimi.

The different generations of players on the Experience tour highlight the guitarist’s wide-ranging impact. Some knew and worked with the legend. Others were born after Hendrix’s death and discovered him only through his recordings. No matter the relationship, the connection is a powerful one.

“The tour has Buddy Guy, who influenced Hendrix,” Shepherd observes. “There’s Billy Cox, who played with him. There are the younger musicians who were influenced by Hendrix.”

Born in Seattle in 1942, Hendrix did a short stint in the Army, then became a backing musician for a number of R&B and soul artists including rock ‘n’ roll pioneer Little Richard. He also spent time in New York, working on his solo career and making industry connections. In 1966 he went to Britain, formed the Jimi Hendrix Experience and released such indelible work as “Hey Joe” and “Purple Haze.” His experimental, feedback-laden live performances at the Monterey Pop Festival and Woodstock cemented his place as one of the most singular and electrifying forces in the rock world.

It was a fast rise and a tragic fall. Hendrix died of complications caused by barbiturate intoxication in London in 1970. His passing was during a tumultuous era marked by the deaths of several of rock’s mightiest figures, among them vocalists Janis Joplin and Jim Morrison and Rolling Stones’ guitarist Brian Jones.

Hendrix’ career as a frontman was brief. But the enduring power of his catalog continues to shape the genre.

“Jimi had everything,” says Shepherd. “Great songs. Great guitar riffs. Grooves. Passion. He didn’t observe boundaries. Whether he was playing blues or rock, he always took it to the next level. He accomplished so much in such a short amount of time.”

For his part on the tour, Shepherd plays a mini-set of Hendrix material including “Gypsy Eyes” and “Castles Made of Sand.” He’ll also play “Voodoo Child (Slight Return),” a perennial in his own career. The guitarist has been ending his set with the song since his teenage years.

His own love for Hendrix began in childhood. Shepherd was born and raised in Shreveport, La.

“My dad was a disc jockey on the radio, so music was always played in the household,” he recalls. “Hendrix was part of the soundtrack along with James Brown and Hank Williams.”

Shepherd began playing at the age of 7. “The guitar chose me as much as I chose the guitar,” he says. Within a few years he was trying to learn Hendrix’s “Purple Haze.”

His father’s profession gave the young Shepherd a firsthand view of the music business. Whenever his dad went to a show, he would tag along.

“I was around every musician who came through town,” he says. “My dad had backstage passes, so I met everyone. It was an example for my future life.”

That life now includes his annual participation in the Experience Hendrix Tour. When his wife and kids join him on the road, he rents his own bus. Otherwise he rides the communal buses with the other artists.

As a fan of Hendrix, it’s a win-win to play the legend’s songs with other like-minded guitarists. “It’s a slew of terrific musicians playing tribute to great music,” Shepherd says.

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