New releases hint at best of Hendrix

Posted March 26, 2013


“People, Hell, and Angels” is the latest batch of “previously unreleased” studio session recordings from Jimi Hendrix’s meteoric career, which burned out suddenly and tragically almost half a century ago.

“Are You Experienced?,” “Axis: Bold as Love” and “Electric Ladyland,” the three studio albums Hendrix released with his band during his lifetime – under the very apropos moniker of “The Jimi Hendrix Experience” – were considered revolutionary in their time.

Today, they are known to contain some of the most influential music ever made in the rock tradition.

However, that Jimi shows up only occasionally on “People” – not to mention the Jimi who blew Woodstock-goers minds when he made horrified shrieks and bomb explosions and machine gun fire come out of his guitar during an instrumental rendition of the national anthem at the seminal 1969 music festival.

That Jimi taught me how to play the guitar. Not literally – he was long gone before I was even born. But, every lick and riff of those three pillars of guitardom are seared into my hands. I literally played those albums until my fingers bled. It’s been almost a decade since I first heard the Woodstock recordings and I still can’t give an adequate verbal description of their power and beauty.

Jimi’s problem was that he was too good. Kind of like Springsteen or Clapton, Hendrix’s outtakes and session jams would have been solid efforts for almost any other contemporary artist, but his golden musical talent shines less brightly when compared to the pure platinum he allowed to make it from tape to vinyl.

“People” starts off with “Earth Blues,” a typically funky take on the 12-bar structure that Hendrix wasn’t afraid to bend to his whims. It has the characteristic psychedelic nonsense lyrics and fuzzy overdriven guitar, and even some gospel-style backup singers that add in a dash of R&B flavor.

It’s followed by the more free-flowing “Somewhere,” which any amateur rockologist could pick out from a mile away by the typically Hendrixian use of the entire electric guitar setup and even the studio equipment itself as an instrument. With all sorts of pedal effects and echoes and overdubbing, it left me with that familiar feeling of post-listening disbelief – how on earth did he make those sounds with a guitar?

Track three is one of my all time favorite Hendrix standards – but this version severely disappoints. Anyone who has heard the live-recorded version of “Hear My Train a Comin’” from Woodstock will immediately realize why the “People” version wasn’t released until now. It just sounds like an outtake.

“Bleeding Heart” is another heavy blues jam, this one with a kind of skittish Motown drumbeat and a brassy horn section. You can tell the musicians were having fun, but it’s once again obvious why this cut had never before made it onto an actual album.

“Let Me Move You” features saxophonist and singer Lonnie Youngblood in a fast-paced R&B romp, a la “Long Hot Summer Night” or “Crosstown Traffic.” Like most of the recordings on “People,” “Let Me Move You” was laid down during the time Hendrix was working on “Electric Ladyland” – the last album he would release before his death – and this version of the song makes obvious both where his roots lay and the direction in which his style was growing.

“People’s” rendition of “Izabella,” another song that made an appearance at Woodstock, gets pretty funky like the aforementioned tracks from “Ladyland,” but it also shows hints of his first two albums, “Are You Experienced?” and “Axis: Bold as Love.”

“Experienced?” and “Axis” were both released in 1967 as Hendrix was earning the adoration of fans across the world and the admiration of other budding guitar heros like Pete Townsend and Eric Clapton for his unsurpassed skill with his instrument. He firmly established himself as an innovative songwriter and front-man musician with 1968’s “Ladyland” and continued to amaze audiences with fiery and flamboyant live performances until his untimely death in 1970 at the age of 27.

Hendrix’s deep Delta roots show up again in “Easy Blues” – one of the more straightforward blues jams on the album. It’s got a jazzy beat and some psychedelic background buzz, but it’s a little rough around the edges, like “Crash Landing,” which sounds very much like it barely missed the final cut of “Ladyland,” with its whacky lyrics and whimsical guitar parts.

“Inside Out” shows hints of where Hendrix might have been headed after “Ladyland.” It’s psychedelic and experimental, with reverberating double-tracked guitars and a groovy jazz beat and chord progression – like something he might have started working on during “Axis” – but it also sounds a lot like the hard-driving “Purple Haze,” one of the most famous songs from the breakout “Experienced?” album that would help make him a star.

“Hey Gypsy Boy” has much more of the leaner, reverb-and-echo, “underwater” sound of “Axis.” It’s slow and steady – spare but simultaneously spacy and atmospheric. Hendrix makes the strings sing with bends and slides and fluid runs up and down the fretboard. If he had lived long enough to release a fourth album, this track would almost certainly have made the cut in one form or another.

“Mojo Man” again finds Hendrix venturing back into the funk and R&B tradition with the Ghetto Fighters joining in for vocals and a horn section. It’s a rambling, jangling track with a lot of potential, but it’s exactly the kind of song that Hendrix would have played as he cut his teeth on the Chitlin circuit – not something he would have released as a more mature musician.

The final track, “Villanova Junction Blues,” is another one of my favorites from the Woodstock set list that doesn’t live up to the raw psychedelic energy of that earth-shattering live performance. Still, it has too much of Hendrix’s idiosyncratic bluesy-funky R&B soul and virtuosic guitar playing in it for Jimiphiles like me not to enjoy it, despite its flaws.

In fact, “Villanova Junction” is sort of the “soundtrack” of the album – it has bits and pieces of all Hendrix’s musical influences and makes liberal use of his superhuman abilities with his instrument of choice, but it fails to show off how expertly he was capable of stitching all that talent together.

I suppose we should be glad that Jimi left hours of unreleased material behind, but like most of his fans, I wish he had lived long enough to have the kind of career Springsteen, Dylan, and Clapton have enjoyed – exploring and experimenting over decades, adapting and perfecting their styles. Still, to ponder the amount of innovation that took place within the extremely short time frame of Hendrix’s career is a wonder in and of itself.

This album, like the many of the other “previously unreleased” collections of Hendrix recordings from the past, is not a “beginners’ introduction” to his music and it’s certainly not full of his “greatest hits.” It’s more of a contextual artifact that allows obsessives like myself another window through which to view the established canon of his work.

“People” didn’t make me want to listen to it again. It made me want to go back and listen to the Woodstock album and remind myself how much better he could be – and how much more he could have accomplished if he had had the time.

  • Title: “People, Hell, and Angels”
  • Artist: Jimi Hendrix
  • Released: March 1, 2013
  • Label: Experience Hendrix, L.L.C. (under exclusive license to Sony Music)
  • Price: $10.99 on iTunes