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Jimi Hendrix's Spiritual High

Image from Jimi

As the world went to Hell in 1970, Jimi Hendrix took his listeners to Heaven.

Jimi Hendrix Experience

Electric Church

Label: Sony Legacy
US Release Date: 2015-11-06
UK Release Date: 2015-10-30

In 1970 Atlanta, Georgia was not necessarily the hub it is today. Although the city had risen from the ashes of conflict, something like a century before, it still existed in isolation. But like most American cities at the time the counterculture had infiltrated the soil and rock ‘n’ roll had banged its way into the consciousness of Southern men and women who were as tired of the old ways as anyone.

Of course, the rest of America in 1970 was still reeling from a dark season. Sure, Woodstock had happened the year before, but that didn’t usher in a new American dream but instead a sense of dis-ease. The Manson killings in California, Altamont just up the coast, Kent State in the heartland. Those events, as well as the ongoing war in Vietnam, formed a four-pronged attack that threatened the very sanctity and maybe the future of American life as we knew it.

And yet rock ‘n’ roll persisted. Undeterred by the unsettling news from the Left Coast or the flyover lands, a group of young Southerners (chief among them electric guru Alex Cooley, a man worthy of his own documentary) pooled their resources to bring a music festival to the tiny town of Byron, Georgia.

Billed as the Atlanta International Pop Festival and held over the 4th of July weekend that year, the event brought together Spirit, the always under-appreciated Hampton Grease Band, the Allman Brothers Band, B.B. King, and of course the Jimi Hendrix Experience. Many of the problems that plagued the Woodstock Festival (traffic jams, a scarcity of food, water, and shelter from the elements) also threatened this event. But it was and remains a success and so too does Jimi Hendrix’s performance from somewhere in the wee hours of Independence Day.

His performance there was recently issued on the album Freedom and it, along with the live footage featured in this film, gives evidence of Hendrix in rare form. For all the talk of how uncontrolled he could be, he seems focused, his playing smart and memorable. Occasionally he provides listeners with real treats, tricks and runs that he didn’t seem to pull out on studio recordings and which are hard to come by in other live performances.

He seemed to always play well despite a grueling schedule for much of his touring life and there’s evidence that had he and the Experience survived beyond 1970 we would have witnessed a great increase in his prowess as a player, writer and singer. Throughout his set the stage is dark, scarcely lit and all the more dramatic for it. The cameras are so close and the images so clear that you begin to feel as though you are really there, transported through time to one great night long, long ago.

Hendrix would be dead just a few short months after this performance and rock festivals like this one would see a kind of decline. The footage of Hendrix and the Experience is provided at the back end of lengthy windup with testimonials from a wide range of players from Alex Cooley to Mountain’s Leslie West to Kirk Hammett of Metallica and beyond. But it’s not just about Hendrix, it’s a way of establish the context in which all of this happened and providing insight into a peculiar moment in history.

All of that seems worthy of its own documentary, one which discusses the South in the hours before what came to be known as Southern Rock exploded.

Several reviewers have expressed concern that other footage from the festival will never see the light of day but HOTLANTA, directed by Steve Rash and featuring other performances has been making the rounds over the last couple of years, though a wide release date at this time remains unknown.

This DVD expands upon a recent Showtime special and features performances and images not seen in the original broadcast. Of the many times the Hendrix vaults have been raided, this is one that has yielded something well worth the effort.

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