THE JIMI HENDRIX EXPERIENCE BBC Sessions (MCA)
Being the first interesting Hendrix Family release, the triple "BBC Sessions" is essentially an expanded reissue of Castles earlier "Radio One" compilation (which I used to have, until my mate Dave inadvertently left it on the roof of our Computer Studies teachers Capri just before he gave him a lift home...sadly it was never found), filled out with a smattering of television sessions, a wee bit of dialogue and a few alternate takes. "BBC Sessions" is beautifully presented and packaged, with a huge gatefold sleeve, wacky psychedelic graphics, scene-setting photographs (allowing the listener ample opportunities to scrutinise the Experiences ridiculously big hair, "the obligatory Hendrix perm" indeed!), an informative booklet, and, best of all, audiophile 180 gram pressings that capture these recordings in all their monotastic glory.
The music, then: most of it was recorded during 1967, for shows like Saturday Club, Rhythm And Blues and Top Gear (not the motoring programme, Ill wager), all of it with minimal or no overdubbing. The songs featured are a mixture of material from Hendrixs monumental single and album releases of that year and a rich trawl of cover versions, including Beatles, Dylan and Elvis amongst the more traditional expected blues fare, defining the concept of the human jukebox when Jeff Buckley and The Lemonheads were still in nappies. Many of the highlights are familiar from the "Radio One" album: scorching, thunderous takes on "Driving South", "Catfish Blues", "Hoochie Coochie Man" (with Alexis Korner on slide guitar) and "Hear My Train A Comin" (which mustve surely inspired the live-in-the-studio version of "Voodoo Chile" on "Electric Ladyland", with the Experience apparently performing before a small crowd of friends and fans on both the versions presented here), interesting permutations of previously released studio work - "The Burning Of The Midnight Lamp" with a rarely-heard different ending, the bands exuberant whoops as the intro to "Spanish Castle Magic" launches itself down the runway - and outright lunacy (a literal interpretation of "Hound Dog", and a rough version of a proposed Radio One jingle, of all things). Of the new material, amongst a smattering of alternative takes a jam session featuring Stevie Wonder on drums stands out - despite the lukewarm appraisal in the sleevenotes - which insinuates its way into an instrumental version of "I Was Born To Love Her".
The best, though, is saved until last, the first legitimate release of the set the Experience performed live on the prophetically titled "A Happening For Lulu" television special in January 1969. Beginning with a conventional enough (i.e. as stratospheric as youd expect) take on "Voodoo Child (Slight Return)", theres some unfortunate patter from a frankly terrified Lulu about how she loves to hear them play "Hey Joe", which they were then scheduled to perform. However, rock history records that by this point in his career Hendrix had grown bored with repeatedly trotting out his hits for audiences, and that dissatisfaction is not a little evident here, the band taking off on their own "Jazz Odyssey" for a few minutes before, to the almost audible relief of Lulu, the production team and a live audience of millions, the first verse of "Hey Joe" stumbles out of the sheets of Ornette Coleman improv. Soon disharmony is restored, however, as they burst into an unscheduled instrumental blast through "Sunshine Of Your Love", dedicated to the recently disbanded Cream. The last thing you can hear on the album is Hendrix saying "Were being put off the air..." as the band wail on regardless. A classic of rock versus television, up there with the Sex Pistols demolition of Bill Grundys career and The Stone Roses blowing the fuses on "The Late Show", you could make a case for the argument that this, rather than Woodstock, Altamont or Watergate, was where the 1960s really ended.
Thats the "BBC Sessions", then: over 100 minutes of crunchtastic Hendrix, at or around his peak, it cannot fail to dazzle and delight no matter how many times youve heard these songs before, and in how many versions.
THE JIMI HENDRIX EXPERIENCE Axis Bold As Love (Polydor)
HENDRIX Live At The Fillmore East (MCA)
"Axis Bold As Love" seems to have gained a reputation as being the lesser of the three Experience studio works, and although it fares badly in being chronologically sandwiched between "Are You Experienced" and "Electric Ladyland", which, let's be honest, are pretty much the two key texts for anyone studying of the role of the electric guitar in rock, the second album of the Jimi Hendrix Experience, as it used to say in the gatefold sleeve, has a charm all of its own. Containing no hit singles, it's nevertheless home to "Little Wing" (later covered by both Eric Clapton and Sting) and a smattering of other fine, unjustly neglected originals such as "Up From The Skies", "Wait Until Tomorrow" and "Castles Made Of Sand". Most points are awarded to the closing "Bold As Love" - the moment Mitch Mitchell's brief phased drum solo kicks in has to be one of the most thrilling in the Hendrix canon. Note also that the current Polydor vinyl issue has a few seconds of music at the beginning of "You've Got Me Floating" missing from that company's remixed CD equivalent, as well as a few moments of even-more-out-there stereo effects.
Meanwhile, from the other end of his career, "Live At The Fillmore East" is the latest Hendrix Family release, a laudable series that attempts to tie up the loose ends of Jimi's brief but incredibly prolific career and cut a swathe through the multitude of repackaged and unreleased material that appeared after his death. "Fillmore East", then, is a triple album of material recorded at the 1969/1970 New Year concerts from which the "Band Of Gypsys" album - which, unfortunately, I've never really enjoyed - was compiled.
For me, "Band Of Gypsys" (the album and the group) sounded like an attempt at the same rock/soul fusion brewed up around the same time by Sly And The Family Stone, but whilst that crew packaged the result in short, sharp three-minute adrenaline bursts (the sort of thing Hendrix spent much of 1967 doing, come to think of it) the Gypsys stretched out in the other direction, the rock element seemingly consisting of the sort of tedious, long-winded improvisation and instrumental grandstanding that the likes of Cream were so fond of (much of the live half of "Wheels Of Fire" being a particularly good/bad example). Most of "Live At The Fillmore East" sounds underwritten and over-improvised, the few points of light being the handful of old favourites Hendrix treated the crowd to - "Stone Free", the unreleased at the time but always welcome "Hear My Train A Comin'", "Voodoo Child (Slight Return)" and the closing "Wild Thing".
Whatever the merits/demerits of the music, I should point out that the folk at Experience Hendrix have done an exemplary job, as ever, with the packaging of this release, pressed on audiophile 180 gram vinyl and presented in a hefty triple gatefold sleeve with an informative booklet. (And how smart is the photo of the marquee outside the Fillmore East, which lists attractions over the Christmas period that, apart from Hendrix, include The Byrds, Blood, Sweat And Tears and Grateful Dead...sigh!)
THE JIMI HENDRIX EXPERIECE Live At Berkeley (Experience Hendrix)
This latest instalment in the Hendrix family's rebuilding of the Jimi myth is another gorgeously fetishistic package - big booklet, numbered limited edition and heavy vinyl. It does sound glorious, especially the percussion, which spreads right across the soundstage with a fantastically tactile crunch. The music - taped at his second show at the Berkeley Community Theatre on Saturday May 30, 1970, here presented complete and in sequence - is pretty good too. Considering how uncomfortable he reportedly felt at audiences baying for the hits and pyromaniac, shamanic destruction, the setlist presents an acceptable compromise between works in progress and familiar favourites. Compared to the turgid "Live At Fillmore East", recorded not six months earlier, this is, literally, the work of a different band of gypsies. Reinstating Mitch Mitchell and resurrecting the Experience moniker, this might just have been the funkiest, most flexible trio Hendrix had yet played in.
He teases the audience with a fragment of "Hey Joe" during a long, languid introduction to "Hey Baby (New Rising Sun)", a powerful space ballad never released during his lifetime, here found to be shaping up into a Woodstock and Altamont-scarred piece of soul melancholia, "1983 (A Merman I Should Turn To Be)" heavy with a little too much perspective but glinting with tomorrow's hope. Similarly, "Flight Of The Bumble Bee" somehow wanders into "Lover Man", a song that perhaps fondly acknowledged his chitlin days. The perennial "Stone Free" appears thankfully slimmed down compared to its interminable "Fillmore East" incarnation, and some radio breakthrough doesn't spoil "Hey Joe", perhaps adding even more tension to its apocalyptic tale of outlaw justice. The fast-approaching locomotive hammering of Mitchell's solo introduction to "I Don't Live Today" comes at you from all sides, Hendrix turning in some molten whammy bar music of the spheres before steering the song towards a furious double speed close.
I've never been fond of the "Band Of Gypsys" period period, and although the instrument as weapon metaphor deployed during "Machine Gun" might be technically accomplished Jimi could not be said to not labour the point over these 11 tortuous minutes. Hendrix at his best was never about clever, he just seemed to plug straight into the soul and run on instinct rather than intelligence. "Foxey Lady", as it seems we must spell it these days, offers immediate relief, bursting open with borderline atonal grumbling slabs of guitar and ornate yet piledriving percussion.
Introducing the expected counterculture deconstruction of "Star Spangled Banner" as "the American anthem the way it really is in the air that you breathe everyday, the way it really sounds", Jimi's flag-torching rendition is all swoop and dive-bomb, feedback raddled and wah-wah pedalled. It crashes headlong into a clipped but volcanic "Purple Haze", from whose embers emerges ten minutes of Black Panthers-dedicated "Voodoo Child (Slight Return)" (again, as it appears we must spell it these days). Hendrix launches into it with utter conviction, hurtling through the introduction like a jet down a runway. Losing its footing slightly as it ambles into the soul jam blueprint "Keep On Groovin", that colossal opening fanfare eventually returns to bring it, the evening and the album on home.
Comfortably in the upper quartile of live Hendrix releases, should you still be craving documentary evidence of the man in concert at this late stage "Live At Berkeley" has to be on your shopping list. It crackles and it gleams in all the right places.
THE JIMI HENDRIX EXPERIENCE Live At Monterey (Experience Hendrix)
By my reckoning, this is the third issue of Hendrix’s kingmaking homecoming performance (the Experience’s first on American soil), and it stakes a valid claim as the finest. Overseen by the Hendrix estate and remixed by Eddie Kramer (given that he engineered the Experience’s studio albums, he seems a wise choice for the job), it sounds absolutely glorious. Given the combustibility factor of the real thing, this is probably as close as you’d want to get to having the band play in your own lounge. From Jimi’s gentleman stoner banter to the way Mitch Mitchell plays the drums like they’re a lead instrument, it’s fabulous.
The languid, playful cover of “Like A Rolling Stone” is worth the entry fee on its own. The selections from “Are You Experienced” arrive faster, cleaner, dirtier and louder than their studio equivalents, and just how can he drop in the tender, lyrical “The Wind Cries Mary” between the volcanic rage of “Can You See Me” (mysteriously described on the cover sticker as a “bonus performance”) and “Purple Haze”? And of course there’s “Wild Thing”, although it’s inevitably doomed to lag behind the visual document. Listeners new to Hendrix might wonder why this celebrated version rapidly degenerates into jazz odyssey territory, as Mitch Mitchell’s refreshingly clear-eyed booklet notes neglect to mention the fact that Jimi was unable to play his guitar at this point because he’d doused it in lighter fluid and set it on fire.
Of course, it was exactly those theatrics and pyrotechnics that would soon turn performing into a chore, but “Live At Monterey” captures the band, still only eight months old, in their glorious ascendancy.
JIMI HENDRIX Band Of Gypsys (Classic)
I’m no fan of post-“Electric Ladyland” Hendrix, and the Band Of Gypsys, both band and album, has been a blind spot (or perhaps that should be deaf spot) for me for decades. Intended as a contractual obligation album to disentangle Hendrix from an unwise deal he signed back in 1965, it was recorded during the trio’s New Year’s Eve 1969/New Year’s Day 1970 Fillmore East residency. Not wishing to decry the artist’s attempts at continual musical change, progression and experimentation, unfortunately I find these songs underwritten and overextended, being turgid blues and soul jams low on spark, invention and inspiration; just about the only psychedelic remnant on the entire album is the light playing over Hendrix on the cover photo. Lyrically it’s an album of worthy sentiment – a kind of street-toughened version of the hippies’ love and peace credo, reflecting the uncertainty of the conflict-torn age – somewhat clumsily expressed. (I realise that all this is almost certainly a minority viewpoint.) The anti-war “Machine Gun” is almost thuddingly literal, Hendrix firing off rounds from his guitar, and painfully overlong, pushing 13 unlucky minutes here. The songs on the second side are more tightly structured, with two ceded to drummer Buddy Miles, but there are no classics among them. For me, then, this last of the four official Hendrix albums released during his lifetime is also the least.
What just about salvages “Band Of Gypsys” as a listening experience is the fact that Classic’s vinyl reissue sounds so darn good. Even in the economy 140 gram form that I tracked it down in, it manages to present a pretty convincing illusion of the band playing in your lounge, presumably whilst you stifle the inclination to yell out for “Hey Joe”. Even as “Machine Gun” limps to its far-flung conclusion, the delicate interplay between the musicians exerts a mesmeric fascination. The pressing and packaging are of a similarly high standard, the album arriving in a thick gatefold sleeve that exudes quality. “Band Of Gypsys” has received a deal of reissue attention recently, with alternate versions available from Music On Vinyl and EMI (as part of the generally derided “From The Capitol Vaults” series). I feel confident in saying that neither are likely to better Classic’s efforts here, and if you’re interested in the finest sounding “Band Of Gypsys” on vinyl grab one whilst it’s still just about available. Despicable cliché that it is, the only thing against it is the music.