The greatest rock star and the most important (and most would argue greatest) guitar player of all time, Jimi Hendrix was a true original who had it all. For one thing, he had the look, with his flamboyant flower power attire, plus the fact that he was handsome and black made him stand out that much more. Woman loved him, men worshipped him, and he died tragically at a mere 27 years of age, which also meant that he came and went before he could suck. Jimi honed his chops on the "chitlin' circuit" backing the likes of Little Richard and the Isley Brothers, among many others, before former Animals bassist Chas Chandler saw something in him. Becoming his manager, Chandler took him to the U.K. and hooked him up with a white rhythm section (Mitch Mitchell, drums; Noel Redding; bass) who fit him perfectly, giving his songs the muscle and immediacy that they deserved. This "power trio" instantly took the U.K. by storm, later becoming overnight successes in the U.S. as well after Jimi memorably set his guitar on fire at the legendary Monterey Pop Festival. When this incendiary debut album (produced by Chandler with major assistance from engineer Eddie Kramer) was released in 1967, everybody instantly knew that the rules had changed for good; there are few albums in rock's history where you can draw a "before" and "after" line, but this is one such album. Sure, sonic experimentalists such as Jeff Beck, Michael Bloomfield, and Eric Clapton had already greatly advanced the sonic possibilities of the guitar, but nobody, and I mean nobody, had ever made a guitar sound like that before, and with this album Hendrix exploded into peoples consciousness and forever altered the way that people looked at the electric guitar. Hendrix’s vibrantly raw, feedback filled guitar excursions dominated his band’s sound, as he routinely produced seemingly otherworldly sounds that have since directly or indirectly influenced countless generations of guitar players. As for the Experience, they were near perfect accomplices who enabled Jimi's visionary ideas to achieve fruition: Redding was the anchor who held everything together, and the great Mitchell was the whirling dervish who filled in the empty spaces and who perhaps was the only '60s drummer at the time to rival Keith Moon in terms of raw energy and reckless abandon. More than just a guitar virtuoso with a knack for creating cool sounds, Hendrix had the vision to use his talents to explore uncharted territory, making for some of the most innovative and exciting moments of the late '60s, a golden era for rock music. True, Jimi drew his inspiration from a variety of traditional sources (blues, jazz, r&b, and hard rock being the most obvious), but he stirred them together into his own psychedelic stew, thereby taking the songs to an entirely different realm that he alone occupied. Despite the fuzzed out tone of many of these tracks, these explosive performances, many of which were hammered out live in the studio, are still eminently listenable, if not exactly easy listening. It helps that in addition to being a phenomenal guitarist, Jimi was also a superior songwriter, and about half of this album should already be at least mildly familiar to anyone who has ever listened to "classic rock" radio. Among this album's highlights are explosively acidic hard rockers such as "Purple Haze" (a classic guitar extravaganza with one of rock's most famously misheard lyrics) and "Foxey Lady" (more lustful and only slightly less spectacular), gentler meditations such as "May This Be Love" (love the poetic lyrics and the fact that it was included on my beloved Singles soundtrack years later) and "The Wind Cries Mary" (Jimi at his most melodic and tender), and funky hard rock such as "Manic Depression" (a prime example of the brilliant Jimi/Mitchell interplay) and "Stone Free" (which the likes of Lenny Kravitz have built careers on). Also notable is "Love Or Confusion" (due to its trippy guitar fireworks), "I Don't Live Today" (due to its cosmic heaviness), "Fire" (another explosive Mitchell-led extravaganza with Jimi's memorably playful and cocky "move over Rover..." aside), "Highway Chile" (with its great hard rock riffs), "Are You Experienced?" (distinguished by its strong melody and backwards guitar solo, as Jimi was just starting to use the studio-as-instrument that would fully flower on his next album), "Third Stone From The Sun" (another studio embellished masterpiece, this experimental space rocker is the album's most "out there" track), and “Red House” (probably Jimi’s most famous straight blues). And I almost forgot "Hey Joe," the band's first single which like "Purple Haze" is only available on the U.S. version of the album; grab the definitive 17-track reissue, which solves any U.S. vs. U.K. edition issues. Anyway, back to "Hey Joe," other artists such as The Leaves, Love, and Roy Buchanan have done fine versions of this Billy Roberts tune, but I think that most would agree that Jimi's is the definitive version, with its liquidy solo, more than solid vocals (Jimi wasn't a great singer but he was more than good enough, and his voice fit his songs), assistance from the Breakaways on backing vocals lending to the song's haunting ambiance, and of course its legendarily murderous lyrics. Anyway, there are a few less than essential entries towards the album's back end, but little in the way of outright filler as usually there's something to recommend even among the lesser songs, such as the kinda cute "so you say you wanna be married?" vocal hook in "51st Anniversary." If Jimi had produced this album alone, his spot in the rock pantheon would still be assured forever.
Axis: Bold As Love (MCA ’67,’97) Rating: A+
After opening up a whole new world of possibilities and forever expanding the language of the electric guitar, the Jimi Hendrix Experience went on a disastrous tour opening for The Monkees (the most famous mismatched touring coupling ever?), whose teenybopper audience were none too appreciative. After that quickly rectified debacle came the band's quickly recorded follow-up, Axis: Bold As Love, one of the quintessential "stoner" albums that was perhaps less obviously great. But great it still is, and I actually listen to this album more since unlike Are You Experienced? it's not burdened by overexposure, and since I'd argue that it's the band's most cohesive overall album. No, on the whole it doesn't have as many signature songs as the two Experience albums that tend to overshadow it (more about Electric Ladyland next), but this is the album where I'm most apt to just press play and listen to the whole thing in one sitting, and the one that I feel really adds up to more than the sum of its still-impressive individual parts. On the whole, the songs are more concise, less blues-based, lighter, poppier, and more psychedelic as Hendrix and company unleashed a kaleidoscopic tapestry of otherworldly sounds that can still enthrall and beguile decades later. There is still a heavy r&b influence on certain songs, and the mystical hippy dippy lyrics can sound dated, but on the whole this was a very forward looking album that saw Hendrix break considerable new ground, again with help from Chandler and Kramer who along with an increasingly involved Hendrix were using the studio almost as another instrument. Certainly "EXP," the brief comedy sketch turned space rocker that opens up the album, was revolutionary at the time in the way that they used effects to move sounds around in your head by changing the speaker output. After that head trip comes "Up From The Skies," with its swinging jazz rhythm (and Jimi is seriously overlooked as a great rhythm guitarist) and softly sung vocals; two tracks later "Wait Until Tomorrow" is another great rhythm guitar showcase, plus I like its catchy, cute falsetto vocals. In between those two songs is "Spanish Castle Magic," an apocalyptic heavy number that's more reminiscent of the previous album. Other highlights include the transcendent if too-short ballad “Little Wing,” easily the album's most famous song and a strong contender for Jimi’s best song ever, and "If 6 Was 9," by far the album's longest song (5:32) and a powerfully bluesy hard rocker on which Jimi waves his freak flag high (with apologies to David Crosby). Also of note are the song's chillingly fatalistic lyrics, which foretell of his future demise, and its expansive jam section where Mitchell and Redding really shine and Jimi’s guitar sounds like a bird screaming. More modestly wonderful is the gently soulful and poetic "Castles Made Of Sand" and the gorgeous yet rocking "One Rainy Wish," with more genius guitar soloing from Jimi. Last but not least, "Bold As Love" is a melodic but intense semi-ballad on which the Experience jam out to the end, thereby providing a fabulous finale (heck, this may very well be my favorite extended outro guitar solo of all-time). Granted, not every song here is first rate, but I at least like all of them, from the straightforward r&b-influenced rocker "Ain't No Telling" and onto the poppy (and also r&b-based) yet still quite experimental "You Got Me Floatin'" and even Redding's "She's So Fine," which at least adds variety, while "Little Miss Lover" is a funky wah-wah infused rocker that's also easily recommended. But again, this is an album that's meant to be listened to as a whole, preferably with headphones on, as Jimi's more fluid and melodic guitar tones are no less mind blowing than his previous distortion fests, and if anything his more focused playing lets you better hear how great his bandmates were. Indeed, though Hendrix’s restless search for new sounds (and the stellar engineering that crystallizes his otherworldly innovations) is continually exhilarating, and his underrated songwriting is continually rewarding, ultimately it is the often-spectacular ensemble playing of a great band that makes Axis: Bold As Love consistently rise to a quiet majesty, again and again.
Electric Ladyland (MCA ’68, ’97) Rating: A+
The Jimi Hendrix Experience's third consecutive album of undiluted genius is a sprawling double album (now a 75-minute single cd) that captures both the fiery impact of his debut and the more delicate shadings of Axis, while also expanding Jimi's sonic vocabulary and verbal ideas. Jimi was increasingly becoming a perfectionist studio hound, and his relentless tinkering, requiring take after take, exasperated Chandler, who preferred live takes with minimal overdubs and who therefore left as the producer and sold his management share in the band as well (Jimi took over production duties, again with major assistance from Kramer). Redding was also none too pleased with all the hangers-ons that Jimi now attracted and who flooded the recording studio, but this had its upside as well as Electric Ladyland contains quite a few notable guest appearances from the likes of Steve Winwood, Jack Casady, Buddy Miles, Dave Mason, and Al Kooper, even if the price to pay was Redding feeling marginalized (it wasn't unusual for Jimi to play his bass parts on the album, as it wasn't unusual for Noel to storm out of the studio after yet another disagreement) and the Experience ultimately disbanding soon afterwards. Fortunately, though Chandler had a point at being frustrated with what he viewed to be Jimi's increasing self-indulgent tendencies, the Jimi Hendrix Experience exited with yet another masterpiece, perhaps the best of the bunch as Electric Ladyland is almost impossibly rich. And though perhaps it's the most hit-or-miss Experience album on a song-for-song basis, it's the most adventurous, has the highest peaks, and is the one where I'm most apt to discover aurally pleasing new things even after countless listens. True, there are some songs that are hard to immediately recall upon looking at the track listing, or that I do recall but are a bit generic, but Jimi's astounding guitar playing makes every song worth hearing. As for actual songs, "...And the Gods Made Love" begins the album with another suitably "far out" intro, serving a similar function as "EXP" had for Axis. The sweetly soulful "Have You Ever Been to (Electric Ladyland)", an obvious nod to Curtis Mayfield & The Impressions, is atypical (but not too surprising as Jimi's music was becoming increasingly black) with its soft delivery and sweeping falsettos, but it's also a rousing success, in large part due to arguably Jimi's finest vocal performance; after listening to it he famously exulted "I can sing! I can sing!", confidence in his own voice never having been at a premium. The blistering, catchy funk rock of "Crosstown Traffic" is one of Jimi's most famous and straightforwardly successful tracks, before the indulgences begin on the 16-minute "Voodoo Chile." And I'll grant you that this largely improvised song is probably a few minutes too long (but just because this album is flawed doesn't mean that it's not an A+ anyway), but it also exemplifies how Jimi was determined to spontaneously stretch out and play with different people this time out. The guests on this epic blues jam are Jefferson Airplane’s Jack Casady and Traffic’s Steve Winwood, two superior talents, and though the song has its ups and downs it's worth indulging due to its explosive, incendiary peaks; plus, the success of this song and other collaborations such as Super Session made the all-star jam a fashionable fixture on the rock scene. As for other highlights, "Gypsy Eyes" is awesome groove oriented hard rock with heartfelt, highly personal lyrics (about his mother), and "Burning Of The Midnight Lamp," one of my all-time favorite tunes, delivers shimmering psychedelia, with harpsichord, wah wah guitar (Jimi's first use of the instrument as he was increasingly making use of advancing technology), and soulful gospel harmonies by the Sweet Inspirations woven together into a murky yet intoxicating musical stew. “Rainy Day, Dream Away” is one of Jimi’s best mellower songs (dig the organ, wah wah guitar, and sax on this one), while the symphonic, classically influenced "1983... (A Merman I Should Turn to Be)" (and its lesser companion piece "Moon, Turn the Tides...Gently Gently Away") is another indulgent yet often-brilliant 14-minute set piece whose watery, fantastical, incandescent peaks show Hendrix to be a true original. Again, it could be tightened up a bit, or be brought into clearer focus, but there's a real magic at work here, and this imaginative song is a good example of why Hendrix, though oft-imitated (most slavishly or notably by Frank Marino, Robin Trower, Uli Jon Roth, Ernie Isley, and Eddie Hazel, among others), has never been equaled. Another standout track is "House Burning Down," one of Hendrix's most overtly political tracks (think Vietnam) that's simply a great guitar workout; its transition into the epochal "All Along The Watchtower" is utterly flawless. And what of "Watchtower?" Simply put, this transcendent take is the best Bob Dylan cover ever, if not the best cover song, period, with arguably his most famous guitar solo and one of his best vocals, too. Dylan himself was so touched and impressed by this version that in subsequent concerts he played the Hendrix arrangement in tribute to Jimi. Anyway, last but certainly not least is the ferocious hard funk of “Voodoo Child (Slight Return),” another signature song that's Jimi at his absolute heaviest (and it’s another example of Jimi’s instant wah wah guitar mastery, as is “Still Raining, Still Dreaming” come to think of it). On the whole, this is an amazing sounding record, with pioneering usage of panning, phasing, and special effects layered over songs that would probably be pretty spectacular even without such tricks! Unfortunately, as previously alluded to, this would be Jimi’s last record with his sympathetic compatriots in the Experience, as his restless imagination, fanatical desire to experiment, and perfectionist ways wore thin on those around him. However, short-lived though this made their alliance, it is these qualities that enabled the threesome to create arguably the greatest trilogy of albums in rock history, and Electric Ladyland is the most foreboding yet ultimately rewarding Experience album. P.S. Whereas Axis flat-out had one of the best covers ever, the U.K. version of this album proved quite controversial, what with its nude girls on the cover. However, Jimi had nothing to do with it and was in fact quite pissed about it. P.P.S. Pretty ironic that "All Along The Watchtower," a cover song on which Dave Mason actually played the legendary opening riff (he would record his own version in 1974), became Jimi's lone top 20 U.S. hit ("one hit wonder!"); Electric Ladyland was also his only #1 album. Also, like Axis one thing I appreciate about this album is that aside from its three most famous songs ("Crosstown Traffic," "All Along The Watchtower," "Voodoo Child (Slight Return)") you hardly ever hear the rest of it on the radio.
Band Of Gypsies (Capitol ’70) Rating: B+
After Jimi disbanded the Experience, he played his legendary Woodstock performance in August 1969, had his famous drug bust in Toronto, and then delivered this album to get out of a bad management contract signed with Ed Chalpin well before he'd even met Chandler. Getting together with bombastic drummer/vocalist Buddy Miles and bassist Billy Cox, two old friends who sought to help him out of a bad situation, the newly named Band Of Gypsies played four shows on New Years Eve and New Years Day at the Fillmore East shortly before Jimi’s death. This resulting 6-track live album, all culled from the New Years Eve shows, can only be judged as a disappointment when compared to the three life altering missiles fired by the Jimi Hendrix Experience, but, like pizza and sex, even when Hendrix is at less than his very best he’s still pretty damn good. The main problems with the album, which features a looser funk and soul-based sound, is that some of the songs, all of which exceed five minutes, are more repetitive jams rather than actual songs. Plus, the all-black rhythm section was severely limited; both Miles and Cox were competent, straightforward players (though I don't disagree with the many who criticize Miles' "ham handed" playing), but neither offered much in the way of improvisational skills, and given that most of these songs are highly improvisational, that's sort of a big problem. Also, perhaps as a "f-you" gesture to Chalpin, Hendrix includes two Miles songs ("Changes," "We Gotta Live Together") that he also lets Buddy sing lead on, and Miles vocally chimes in on Jimi's songs as well, not always to the songs benefit. For example, the largely fine if overly long (9:32) "Who Knows" is severely compromised by Buddy's annoying scat singing, though elsewhere the song is kinda catchy with its cool call and response vocals and it also features a scintillating guitar solo from Jimi. "Power To Love" also features catchy call and response vocals and is also notable for its fiery guitar playing, while "Message Of Love" delivers seriously hard funk (studio versions of these two songs would later appear posthumously on South Saturn Delta). As for the two Miles songs, "Changes" is poppier and features somewhat over the top vocals but isn't half bad due to (you guessed it) Jimi's guitar playing, and "We Gotta Live Together" is also salvaged by some tremendous soloing. But these are minor efforts, quite unlike “Machine Gun,” a ferocious guitar jam that clocks in at over 12 outstanding minutes. This song, on which Jimi pulls out all the stops, is worth the price of admission alone in the way that it really transports you back to those turbulent (Civil Rights riots), war torn (Vietnam) times. Even the rhythm section shines on this one, as Miles' drums powerfully approximate machine gun fire and Cox's bass brings the deep funk, but of course it is Jimi, with his amazing array of otherworldly effects and sounds, who dominates. Unfortunately, none of the other songs are as memorable, as the playing at times plods and the songs seem hastily patched together (probably because they were). On the whole, there are also few of the otherworldly innovations that marked Jimi’s previous albums, as Band Of Gypsies is a far more grounded rhythm and blues-based work. Jimi’s guitar playing is still excellent of course, but whereas his previous three studio recordings all still sound timeless and indeed ahead of their time even decades later, Band Of Gypsies strikes me more as a highly flawed if entertaining period piece, with moments of inspiration that aren’t always effectively sustained. Alas, this would be the last Hendrix album released while he was still alive, and had he lived he likely would've been chagrined that it also became one of his biggest sellers (since he wasn't happy with the album and since most of the money went to his nemesis Chalpin). Band Of Gypsies proved to be short-lived, as Miles was soon fired by Jimi's shady manager Michael Jeffrey; the Experience was then reformed but with Cox not Redding on bass. Note: A significantly expanded alternate version of this album called Live At Fillmore East was released in 1999, so if you like Band Of Gypsies you’ll probably want to check out that release as well.
Live At Winterland (Rykodisc ’87) Rating: A-
It's worth noting that the four albums reviewed previously were the only albums released and approved by Jimi Hendrix during his lifetime. Unfortunately, Jimi died a drug-related death on September 8, 1970 as he was working on the material that later surfaced on Cry Of Love and more recently First Rays Of The New Rising Sun. Since his death, a slew of posthumous releases have appeared, many of them dubious in nature, but this is one of the most worthwhile artifacts, capturing as it does the Jimi Hendrix Experience (his best band, period) live at San Francisco's Winterland Ballroom during several October dates just after the release of Electric Ladyland. Although no material from that album is present, the band tears through several vintage Are You Experienced? tracks ("Fire," "Foxey Lady," "Hey Joe," "Purple Haze"), including "Manic Depression," a real rarity in concert. These versions, which appear towards the beginning and end of the album, simply smoke (check out the spectacular intro to "Hey Joe"), and the lone Axis track, "Spanish Castle Magic," is revelatory in its sheer heaviness. Also of note is an impressive instrumental version of Cream's "Sunshine Of Your Love" and a short but also quite heavy "Wild Thing." Of course, those who have seen his Monterey performance and others will no doubt find this song and others less notable without the visual aspect, as Jimi's showmanship (playing his guitar with his teeth, behind his back, assaulting it in various ways, etc.) gets lost with the limited audio-only format. Then again, his sometimes-outlandish stage routines could often fall flat or were frankly embarrassing, but the courage of his attempts to try new and different things was still revolutionary and had far reaching (if not always positive) effects on his future followers. Anyway, back to this album, which boasts exemplary sound quality for a live album, and whose main fault lies in its pacing. As previously mentioned, the album starts and finishes mostly with explosive versions of Are You Experienced? classics, but smack in the middle of the album are three lengthy blues-based pieces. Granted, these songs are fine for what they are, but 11+ minutes of "Red House" is a bit too much for me, and there's some down time during these versions of Howlin' Wolf's "Killing Floor" (8:19) and "Tax Free" (9:07) as well. Then again, some of the guitar soloing on “Red House” is remarkable, "Killing Floor" is a thundering, rumbling rendition that's enhanced by more bass contributions from Casady, and "Tax Free" (also a cover, by Bo Hansson) is another instrumental that, though somewhat plodding, has more impressive improvisational hijinks from Hendrix. All in all, despite its flaws I really enjoy listening to Live At Winterland, as Jimi seems fully engaged (unlike many of his later concerts, which were more likely to be caught on tape) and is having fun, Mitchell and Redding again prove themselves to be a stellar support team, and the sound quality is superlative. Note: This album is now out of print and hard to find, but 2011 saw the release of the 4-cd box set Winterland, which covers this material and much, much more (probably too much for all but the diehards). For those who don’t want to hear that much music or spend that much money, there is also a single-disc highlights version of the album.
Blues (MCA ’94) Rating: B+
Again, I'm not going to get into the whole sordid story of the many exploitative releases that appeared bearing Jimi Hendrix’s name after his death. Suffice it to say that MCA, with the help of the Hendrix family, has since sought to do right by Jimi, re-releasing his original albums in definitive versions, and serving up some new releases of old material that are well worth hearing. Blues, interestingly released the same year as Eric Clapton’s much ballyhooed return to the blues, contains eleven songs recorded with various lineups between 1966 and 1970, the majority of which were previously unreleased. Quite frankly, I suspect that some of these songs would've never been green lighted for release by Jimi himself, including versions of Albert King's "Born Under A Bad Sign" and Muddy Waters' "Mannish Boy" that bear little resemblance to the originals (that said, I really like the all-instrumental former song and the latter version, which also incorporates Bo Diddley’s “I’m A Man,” has its moments as well). The slow, mournful "Once I Had A Woman" is boring and gets going too late, "Bleeding Heart" has some good playing but is pretty pedestrian, and the acoustic "Hear My Train a Comin'" sounds like it was recorded under water, though it's still an interesting curiosity since Jimi lacked confidence in his acoustic playing and hardly ever went that route as a result. Despite this shortcoming, Hendrix is often considered the greatest rock guitarist ever, but as a blues player I'm less impressed, feeling that the limitations of the blues format limited the seemingly limitless arsenal of sounds he otherwise had at his disposal. Which is not to say that he wasn't a good blues guitarist, because he was, even B.B. King thinks so (as mentioned in the detailed liner notes), and this album has its fair share of highlights (in addition to the aforementioned “Born Under A Bad Sign”). For example, "Voodoo Chile Blues" is yet another variation on the Electric Ladyland epic, and though I prefer that one, this one, also with Casady and Winwood guesting, also has some momentous peaks. "Catfish Blues," with jazzy fills from Mitchell (one of my all time favorite drummers) and a frenetic jam finish, and a live version of "Hear My Train' A Comin'," which has screaming guitars aplenty and more Mitchell excellence, are spiritual cousins of that track and also have some stupendous playing, while the more up-tempo “Jelly 292” likewise has some heated soloing. Unfortunately, the lesser tandem of Miles and Cox appear on several tracks (it's kinda fun trying to guess who played on what), and there's simply too much blues-based noodling throughout; 72-minutes of this stuff is a bit much for one sitting. But then I'll be bored listening to a song like "Electric Church Red House" (not the well-known "Red House" which at the time was also making its first appearance on an American album here) and then Jimi will suddenly rip through an astounding solo, and suddenly I'm excited and awed all at once. It is these moments that make sitting through this inconsistent and over-long Blues album worthwhile, and it's also worth noting that rarely has Jimi so consistently stretched out in the studio, though again this isn't always a good thing as many of these performances were likely never meant for release. Jimi’s playing is more straightforward and less otherworldly than on the classic original Experience albums; rather than seeking to innovate, he concentrates on feeling, and by and large these long lost, soulful performances prove that Jimi Hendrix could’ve been remembered as a fine bluesman had he been less ambitious.
First Rays of the New Rising Sun (MCA ‘97) Rating: A-
We can only guess what Jimi would've officially released had he not died, but with the help of the Hendrix estate, who in the 1990s got the rights to his back catalogue and sought to rectify past wrongs with regards to the many dubious posthumous releases bearing his name (most spearheaded by producer Alan Douglas), this is as close as we're likely to get to what Jimi envisioned his next album being at the time of his passing. Most of the material here was previously on The Cry Of Love and Rainbow Bridge, both originally released in 1971 but now out of print, but by most accounts this remastered 17-track edition is closer to what he had intended, which was to release another ambitious double album a la Electric Ladyland. At the time, Jimi was beset by a myriad of problems, including the previously remarked upon legal hassles with Chalpin, the stress of building his own Electric Lady studio (for which he incurred the wrath of the local Mafia!), pressure from the black power movement to make his music more black (which he was gradually doing) and political, and of course the drug problem that killed him. He was also unsure of his musical direction (you can only totally reinvent music once, after all), so he surrounded himself with the people he felt most comfortable with - Mitchell who he had a phenomenal musical rapport with, Cox who was a serviceable bassist but more importantly was his old Army buddy from before he even hit the chitlin' circuit, and Eddie Kramer, who again engineered - and worked on what was for him comparatively straightforward songs for the most part. Of course, the songs released on this album are far more straightforward than what the actual release likely would've been after Jimi the weirdo producer got through with them, but what we have here is generally earthier and more r&b/funk-based than usual, with shorter songs and Jimi's voice sounding more melodic and further up in the mix than usual. And while some of the material here is unremarkable, sounds promising but is clearly unfinished, or is flat-out forgettable, I find the majority of this album to be extremely enjoyable for what it is, even if it's a far cry from the three classic Experience albums. That said, the album would've benefited from being briefer, and when I play it I often program the 12 or so tracks that I really like rather than listen to all of it. As for highlights, "Freedom" is a funky, rocking anthem with lashing guitars, and "Izabella" contains worldly rhythms, catchy chants, and some screaming guitar. Indeed, he may not be breaking any barriers here, but Hendrix remains one heckuva guitar player, as evidenced on funky hard rockers with fiery fretworks such as "Dolly Dagger" and "Ezy Rider," the former inspired by groupie girlfriend Devon White, the latter by the cult movie. "Room Full Of Mirrors" is a propulsive hard rocker with a liquidy, luminous guitar tone (Ernie Isley was likely taking notes), the obviously unfinished but still worthy epic "Hey Baby (New Rising Sun)" likewise hits hard and has an impressive guitar solo, “Earth Blues” is loose, funky, fast-paced, and explosive and is enhanced by catchy female backing chants (in addition to Jimi’s guitar exploits, naturally), and "In From The Storm," despite its blatant rip-off of the Jeff Beck Group's "Rice Pudding" at the very end, invents a seemingly new genre, metallic soul. On the mellower front, the dreamy ballad "Angel," the most famous song here, is a legitimate radio classic on which it's hard not to think of Jimi's sad passing, and "Drifting" is another pretty Curtis Mayfield styled soft soul ballad. I also find myself enjoying admittedly minor efforts such as "Night Bird Flying," which is decidedly different but has some great groovy playing, and the loose, off the cuff "My Friend," which I also have an odd affinity for due to its atypical nature. Generally speaking, when compared to his Experience albums these songs are far less "far out" and are therefore less interesting on the whole, even if the Black Panther Party was likely to be more pleased with them. Still, though I'd rank few of these songs as classic Hendrix, on the whole I'm very pleased with this album as well; in fact, I'd say that its high quality makes any Jimi Hendrix collection incomplete without it.
South Saturn Delta (MCA ‘97) Rating: B
The second vault clearing release authorized by the Hendrix estate, South Southern Delta isn't quite barrel scrapings but aside from a few choice tracks it's hardly essential either. In fact, had "Look Over Yonder," "Here He Comes (Lover Man)," "Drifter's Escape," "The Stars That Play With Laughing Sam's Dice," “Midnight,” and "Pali Gap" been included on First Rays I'd probably consider this album to be almost totally superfluous. "Look Over Yonder" has a near metallic chug and trippy high-pitched harmonies, "Here He Comes (Lover Man)" is based on B.B. King's "Rock Me Baby" but goes well beyond mere blues due to Jimi and Mitch's explosive playing, "The Stars That Play With Laughing Sam's Dice" is largely improvised and a bit of a jumbled mess but it also features some of Jimi’s most wildly psychedelic guitar playing, and "Drifter's Escape" is another killer, hard rocking Dylan cover; it's a pity that Jimi didn't stick around long enough to attempt an entire album of Dylan covers a la The Hollies and so many others (Jimi Does Dylan, perhaps?). Anyway, those are the vocal-inclusive highlights to my ears, but I also highly recommend "Midnight," a heavy riff-driven instrumental, and "Pali Gap," another instrumental (there are several on the album), this one a stellar pure guitar showcase with jazz overtones (remember, Jimi was rumored to be mulling collaborations with both Miles Davis and Gil Evans before his death put an end to such possibilities) The title track also sees him veer into jazz territory but the horns get in his way more than anything, and I'm also less than impressed with "Bleeding Heart" and "Midnight Lightning," a pair of blues-based entries. Elsewhere, songs such as "Power Of Soul," "Message To The Universe (Message To Love)," and "Tax Free" are more impressive elsewhere (the first two, albeit named differently, on Band Of Gypsies, the second also on Live At Woodstock, the latter on Live At Winterland), and alternate versions of "Little Wing" (which sounds more like "Angel," actually), "Angel," and "All Along The Watchtower" are exclusively for the diehards as the more famous versions are far superior. Unlike First Rays, much of this material hadn't appeared previously (though a few of these songs had appeared on since deleted albums such as The Rainbow Bridge Concert and War Heroes), but there's a reason for that, as the majority of this collection will be appealing to only hardcore Jimi Hendrix fans. If you’re one such fan, for example if you're someone who will pore over the differences between this less overdubbed Chas Chandler produced version of "Watchtower" and the Electric Ladyland version, then by all means check this collection out, at least there aren't any bogus Alan Douglas overdubs to be found anywhere. But my guess is that the majority of listeners will likely find much of the material here lacking.
BBC Sessions (MCA ‘98) Rating: A-
Originally released as Radio One in 1988, this 2-cd set of "live in the studio" BBC broadcasts is far more expansive if not necessarily better, as the Hendrix estate probably went too far this time. I mean, just because they can release everything doesn't mean that they should; there's far too much redundant material here (three versions of "Hey Joe" and "Driving South," for starters) and precious few essentials that weren't on the original release. Then again, BBC Sessions has effectively replaced Radio One so I suppose it's a moot point, and besides this reissue boasts superlative sound quality courtesy of Kramer. I also get a kick out of Alexis Korner's goofy introductions (with all due respect to the "Founding Father of British Blues," he sounds like the template for Austin Powers!), and this set primarily captures Jimi and his frizzy haired British comrades in the Experience in 1967, when they were young and hungry, before major success and any ego clashes. I think Jimi having to follow the BBC guidelines actually works in their favor, as it reins in the band's indulgent tendencies, and as such these songs are sharp, focused, and fiery. His strong vocals are clearer than ever, and the song selection is interesting, with the usual early classics ("Hey Joe," "Fire," "Purple Haze," "Foxey Lady"), some blues offerings ("Hoochie Coochie Man," "Catfish Blues," "Hear My Train' A Comin'," "Killing Floor)," a pair of novelties that showcase Jimi's rarely seen sense of humor ("Hound Dog" and the "Radio One" jingle), some strong album tracks that were rarely performed live ("Little Miss Lover," "Burning Of The Midnight Lamp," "Stone Free," "Love Or Confusion," "Wait Until Tomorrow"), and several surprising covers (Dylan's "Can You Please Crawl Out Your Window," a great version of The Beatles' "Day Tripper," Stevie Wonder's "I Was Made To Love Her" (on which Stevie sits in on drums), and a brief snippet of Cream's "Sunshine Of Your Love" (from their infamous 1969 appearance on the Lulu Show). Also, "Driving South" is a groovy instrumental jam with some wailing guitar that's easy to appreciate, even if again three versions of it is a bit much (the second one is the best). Most of the Hendrix compositions don't differ too much from the original versions, but they're very well performed, and often there are slight changes that make them interesting even for those who already own the original versions (or other alternate live versions) of these songs. For example, the backing vocals on "Little Miss Lover" are more prominent, and this version of "Burning Of The Midnight Lamp" is comparatively stripped down and harpsichord-less. It's still damn good, if not quite a match for the multi-layered production masterpiece that graced Electric Ladyland, and though I always miss the Breakaways' backing vocals on live versions of "Hey Joe," the predictably rougher rendition on disc one (the best one) is pretty great anyway. As usual, I prefer Jimi the hard rocker/psychedelic visionary to Jimi the bluesman, and I certainly need to be in the mood for "Hound Dog" (that's Noel and Mitch barking in the background), but by and large BBC Sessions is one of the most flat-out fun Jimi Hendrix albums around, as well as being one of the best albums in the mostly excellent BBC reissue series. It's a pity about all the unnecessary song duplication, but I often find myself programming the original Radio One album and adding a few necessary bonus tracks, thereby providing myself with the all killer, no filler BBC platter that this could've been.
Live At Woodstock (MCA ‘99) Rating: A-
Originally released as Jimi Hendrix: Woodstock in 1994, this expanded 2-cd edition figures to be the last word on Hendrix's famous Woodstock performance since it contains all but two songs performed that day, both of which were sung by rhythm guitarist Larry Lee. Still, though it may very well be the single greatest Hendrix live album with regards to his guitar playing, Live At Woodstock is not without its problems. For one thing, Jimi was a highly visual artist (starting with the fact that he was left-handed but played a right-handed guitar upside down), so obviously you don't get quite the whole effect when merely hearing him play live (but surely you've seen the Woodstock movie, right?). Secondly, for all his plaudits as a live musician, he was actually a pretty erratic live performer, especially in his somewhat confused last year, and this concert has its highs and lows. The biggest problem is his backing band, consisting of Mitchell (great as always), Cox (a support player at best), the aforementioned Lee, and two conga players. Dubbed Gypsy Sun and Rainbows, these guys were a far cry from the original Experience. In fact, the percussionists sucked and the band hadn't practiced enough and lacked cohesion, which engineer Eddie Kramer realized and rectified by wiping out their parts from this album, thereby presenting the new version of the Jimi Hendrix Experience as a hard-hitting power trio. Simply put, what was heard on stage August 18, 1969 is not what is heard on this cd, and the inauthentic nature of this release is likely to offend purists, especially given the historical importance of this performance. After all, is what Kramer did here so different than what Alan Douglas was so severely criticized for doing over the years? If Kramer was willing to remove things, surely it's possible that he added things as well, no? The whole thing makes me feel a bit uncomfortable, but with that rant out of the way let me say that what's here sounds fantastic for the most part. Sure, some of these jams are a bit long and monotonous, his stage patter is often incomprehensible and quite goofy, and I wish that there was more material from Axis and Electric Ladyland (only one song apiece), but despite battling fatigue and less than ideal conditions (a 9 a.m. Monday morning start time), Jimi puts his heart and soul into this justifiably legendary performance. Disc one features probably my favorite rendition of "Message Of Love" (we have Mitchell instead of Miles and Jimi is on fire), plus fierce jams mark "Spanish Castle Magic" and "Lover Man." Again, as with Live At Winterland the band can get bogged down a bit when they try the bluesier stuff, and the improvised jam "Jam Back At The House" takes awhile to get going, but once it does boy does it ever, as does "Hear My Train A' Comin" come to think of it. But disc one is merely a warm-up for disc two, which starts with a stellar "Izabella" but really gets going with a nearly 14-minute version of "Voodoo Child (Slight Return)." Simply put, this version is jaw-dropping, mind-melting, relentlessly awe-inspiring; feel free to add your own adjectives, because guitar-based jamming simply doesn't get any better. Next up is Jimi's monumental shredding of the "Star Spangled Banner," which may be his signature guitar solo (he pulls out all the stops) and which evokes that war torn era like few songs. It sounds better than ever placed within its proper context here, too, and sandwiched around a couple of short, punchy, and flat-out ass kicking early Experience classics ("Purple Haze," "Hey Joe") are two other "songs" that showcase Jimi's improvisational genius, and which can't be heard on any other release. The aptly titled "Woodstock Improvisation" is basically Jimi just strutting his stuff as arguably the greatest guitar player the rock world has ever known, while the subdued "Villanova Junction" delivers the calm after the hurricane hits. Simply put, this sequence of songs on side two is Jimi Hendrix the live musician at his absolute best, and Mitch Mitchell too on the songs where Jimi also lets him let loose. They were playing like men possessed, like they wanted to steal the entire damn festival, and though the reality of the band performance on that morning was in actuality far less than what's presented here, that shouldn't stop your enjoyment when listening to this album. What may curb your enjoyment somewhat is the sheer exhausting nature of these long, jam-heavy songs, which likely won't be everybody's cup of tea even though it is mine. Note: There are plenty of other releases that have appeared over the years, many of which have been pulled by Jimi's estate. The two most necessary purchases that don't appear on this page I suppose are Live At Monterey (better seen and heard on DVD) and the lavishly packaged 4-cd box set The Jimi Hendrix Experience, which is a real treasure trove for Hendrix fanatics (the set’s target audience, naturally).
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