Jimi Hendrix: People, Hell & Angels (Revisited)

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Do we, at this point, require further evidence that Jimi Hendrix was the most prodigiously gifted guitarist to ever play the instrument?

We do not. Then again, we don’t need additional proof that stars glow at night, but it’s still nice to see them light up the sky.

Not so long ago, Hendrix’s compact but concentrated recording career was measured by the official albums released before his death. Aside from bootlegs that ranged from inauthentic to unconvincing—and occasionally exultant—Hendrix’s posthumous legacy was marred by mystery. How much unrealized material languished in the vaults? Who oversaw it?

In recent years, members of Jimi’s family, operating as Experience Hendrix L.L.C., have controlled the keys to the kingdom. Since 2010 there has been a steady—and quite welcome—succession of revelatory recordings, including West Coast Seattle Boy and Winterland (both box sets) and the single-disc Valleys of Neptune. Much of this material has never seen the light of day so, taken together, they significantly broaden our understanding of how productive, and incomparable Hendrix really was.

The gifts continue to arrive, this time with the release of People, Hell & Angels. For Hendrix fanatics, each new installment signifies an event and is to be celebrated accordingly. Of course the aficionados will know in advance how much of this material has appeared, in various forms, on previous releases – both sanctioned and not. For the merely curious, or anyone who has not yet properly experienced Hendrix (are you experienced?), this is not the place to start. For anyone else, this disc, like the aforementioned Valleys of Neptune affords the chance to get caught up on a dozen tracks all in one spot as opposed to the aforementioned bootlegs. Put another way, this is hardly essential unless anything Hendrix did is essential and you want to hear everything he did.

What these recent releases all have in common is the case they continue to make that Hendrix was, as his debut album amply illustrates, a fully-formed player (and performer). Even as he grew and explored, he was seldom in one spot, aesthetically speaking, for long. The dates of the various sessions comprising this collection underscore what many people have long understood: Hendrix could shift seamlessly from the psychedelic adventures of Electric Ladyland to the straight-up, occasionally hard-edged blues, and seemingly every rock style in between.

It is, in fact, the blues idiom that gets a more than casual treatment on several tracks. Unlike many of his more polished performances, the songs included on this set, including a spirited take on the Elmore James classic “Bleeding Heart” and Hendrix staple “Hear My Train a Comin’” are no-frills affairs. Being works-in-progress they have not been multi-tracked or embellished with studio effects; as such they prove (yet again) that Hendrix was extremely comfortable using the classic blues formula as a point of reference—and departure.

Even more enchanting are two tracks that have appeared, in different or edited form, on earlier releases. “Villanova Junction Blues”, which Hendrix would later play at Woodstock, is a snapshot of what the guitarist was trying to capture in the studio: still unfinished, it’s a crucial addition to the Hendrix canon. “Easy Blues”, which initially appeared on the impossible-to-procure 1981 release Nine to the Universe is yet another testament to his genius. It serves as (yet another) showcase of Hendrix’s dexterity and boundless technical proficiency; this should serve as the “I can’t believe I’ve never been able to hear this before” moment from People, Hell & Angels.

There are a handful of new versions of very familiar tracks, such as “Somewhere”, “Izabella” and “Hey Gypsy Boy” (which would eventually become “Hey Baby (New Rising Sun)”. Perhaps most intriguingly, there are the genuine out-of-left-field oddities, such as “Let Me Move You”, which features saxophonist Lonnie Youngblood. “Mojo Man” includes uncredited horn players and lead vocals from Albert Allen, while “Inside Out” features Hendrix on guitar as well as bass (recorded in 1968, this is a result of the increasingly strained relationship with Experience bassist Noel Redding).

Not quite filler, much of this material is anything but indispensable. On the other hand, considering how fleeting Hendrix’s recording career turned out to be, it’s remarkable that so much material was recorded. In this regard, Hendrix was way ahead of his time, ceaselessly working in his own studio and putting jams and improvisations on tape. What remains are fragments that got worked into more refined compositions, and enticing snapshots of ideas and visions that never had a chance to reach fruition.

For Hendrix enthusiasts, and the historical record, this latest (and hopefully not last) installment is priceless in its way. Any time we have an opportunity to hear Hendrix, particularly the incomplete works that clarify how his restless creativity operated, we are amassing additional (if unnecessary) validation that Jimi Hendrix, as an artist and explorer, has few peers in modern music.

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Jimi Hendrix: People, Hell & Angels

Do we, at this point, require further evidence that Jimi Hendrix was the most prodigiously gifted guitarist to ever play the instrument?

We do not. Then again, we don’t need additional proof that stars glow at night, but it’s still nice to see them light up the sky.

Not so long ago, Hendrix’s compact but concentrated recording career was measured by the official albums released before his death. Aside from bootlegs that ranged from inauthentic to unconvincing—and occasionally exultant—Hendrix’s posthumous legacy was marred by mystery. How much unrealized material languished in the vaults? Who oversaw it?

In recent years, members of Jimi’s family, operating as Experience Hendrix L.L.C., have controlled the keys to the kingdom. Since 2010 there has been a steady—and quite welcome—succession of revelatory recordings, including West Coast Seattle Boy and Winterland (both box sets) and the single-disc Valleys of Neptune. Much of this material has never seen the light of day so, taken together, they significantly broaden our understanding of how productive, and incomparable Hendrix really was.

The gifts continue to arrive, this time with the release of People, Hell & Angels. For Hendrix fanatics, each new installment signifies an event and is to be celebrated accordingly. Of course the aficionados will know in advance how much of this material has appeared, in various forms, on previous releases – both sanctioned and not. For the merely curious, or anyone who has not yet properly experienced Hendrix (are you experienced?), this is not the place to start. For anyone else, this disc, like the aforementioned Valleys of Neptune affords the chance to get caught up on a dozen tracks all in one spot as opposed to the aforementioned bootlegs. Put another way, this is hardly essential unless anything Hendrix did is essential and you want to hear everything he did.

What these recent releases all have in common is the case they continue to make that Hendrix was, as his debut album amply illustrates, a fully-formed player (and performer). Even as he grew and explored, he was seldom in one spot, aesthetically speaking, for long. The dates of the various sessions comprising this collection underscore what many people have long understood: Hendrix could shift seamlessly from the psychedelic adventures of Electric Ladyland to the straight-up, occasionally hard-edged blues, and seemingly every rock style in between.

It is, in fact, the blues idiom that gets a more than casual treatment on several tracks. Unlike many of his more polished performances, the songs included on this set, including a spirited take on the Elmore James classic “Bleeding Heart” and Hendrix staple “Hear My Train a Comin’” are no-frills affairs. Being works-in-progress they have not been multi-tracked or embellished with studio effects; as such they prove (yet again) that Hendrix was extremely comfortable using the classic blues formula as a point of reference—and departure.

Even more enchanting are two tracks that have appeared, in different or edited form, on earlier releases. “Villanova Junction Blues”, which Hendrix would later play at Woodstock, is a snapshot of what the guitarist was trying to capture in the studio: still unfinished, it’s a crucial addition to the Hendrix canon. “Easy Blues”, which initially appeared on the impossible-to-procure 1981 release Nine to the Universe is yet another testament to his genius. It serves as (yet another) showcase of Hendrix’s dexterity and boundless technical proficiency; this should serve as the “I can’t believe I’ve never been able to hear this before” moment from People, Hell & Angels.

There are a handful of new versions of very familiar tracks, such as “Somewhere”, “Izabella” and “Hey Gypsy Boy” (which would eventually become “Hey Baby (New Rising Sun)”. Perhaps most intriguingly, there are the genuine out-of-left-field oddities, such as “Let Me Move You”, which features saxophonist Lonnie Youngblood. “Mojo Man” includes uncredited horn players and lead vocals from Albert Allen, while “Inside Out” features Hendrix on guitar as well as bass (recorded in 1968, this is a result of the increasingly strained relationship with Experience bassist Noel Redding).

Not quite filler, much of this material is anything but indispensable. On the other hand, considering how fleeting Hendrix’s recording career turned out to be, it’s remarkable that so much material was recorded. In this regard, Hendrix was way ahead of his time, ceaselessly working in his own studio and putting jams and improvisations on tape. What remains are fragments that got worked into more refined compositions, and enticing snapshots of ideas and visions that never had a chance to reach fruition.

For Hendrix enthusiasts, and the historical record, this latest (and hopefully not last) installment is priceless in its way. Any time we have an opportunity to hear Hendrix, particularly the incomplete works that clarify how his restless creativity operated, we are amassing additional (if unnecessary) validation that Jimi Hendrix, as an artist and explorer, has few peers in modern music.

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Jimi Hendrix Experience: Winterland

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.

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