Jimi Hendrix forever changed the face of rock music. Yeah, his manner and theatrics were revolutionary, but let’s face it, in the end, it was his guitar playing that vaulted him to the top. His style, his phrasing, and his fretboard gymnastics set the bar higher than any previous player, perhaps, higher than it will ever be again.
Because the period in which Hendrix was in the limelight and most productive was brief, his fans flock to any and every scrap of newly discovered recorded material which his “estate” deems worthy of public scrutiny. Many would devour anything and everything, though, honestly, there is a vast quantity of barely listenable tape in circulation. Let me assure you that the newly released Winterland box, comprising most of the material from his October 1968 three-day stint at the Winterland Ballroom, a landmark San Francisco venue, is not part of this group of tapes, but rather, should be considered a necessary component of any true Hendrix lover’s collection.
This review is of the eight-LP box which, at least in the Amazon.com edition, also includes a very interesting CD—a recording “borrowed” from the soundboard during his February 4, 1968 show in the same hall—a priceless glimpse of a genius soaring near his peak. Having seen Hendrix twice during 1968 and then in mid-1969, I can attest to the value of nearly any recording made in ’68. By 1969, he and the band were quite road-weary and his consumption of mind altering substances was clearly affecting his ability on stage. In a word, buy this box, or its CD equivalent. NOW!
The only downside to this current incarnation of Winterland is that it does not include everything from that weekend’s six shows. A CD box of questionable legality which I purchased a few years ago does have the entire corpus of these legendary Winterland performances and I can’t find fault with any of the selections. In any case, all things considered, we are lucky that a Hendrix Estate-sanctioned release, slightly incomplete though it may be, has finally come to fruition because the tape sources are pristine, the 24-page booklet is attention grabbing and informative, and the access to this material on 180-gram LPs is incomparable.
The sound of the LPs offers a truly “you are there” sort of sensation which, in my opinion, CDs just do not. The attack of Noel Redding’s Fender bass strings is clear and punchy, as is the bottom component of each bass note. Mitch Mitchell’s drums project with snap, depth and authority rarely heard on the Hendrix studio LPs. And the main attraction, Hendrix’s guitar, sounds as though it is in the room; his inherent grace and subtlety on the instrument as obvious and enjoyable as his power and brawn. The overall listening experience via these eight discs creates a palpable recreation of the Winterland shows and is replete with the noisy delight of the crowd and the pops and hums and crackles of Hendrix’s amp stacks.
The Music? Well, this is why we are here, so let me just say that, as dazzling as the Experience’s studio recording were, these live shows are a revelation. There are no overdubs, no tricks. We get the raw, real deal. There is no mistaking it, Hendrix reveals the true brilliance of his genius and guitar wizardry within these spiral grooves. In layer upon layer of thick, riff-encrusted texture, the man was capable of creating the illusion of two or three guitars emanating from his Stratocaster. Again, this ability to hear into what Hendrix and his band were actually doing makes this live set indispensable.
Highlights include a twelve-plus minute version of “Are You Experienced” that allows enough room for the band to fully explore this important song, one of their anthems from their first LP, which was rarely heard live. Extended versions of “Red House”, “Like a Rolling Stone”, “Hear My Train a Comin’” as well as classics such as “Purple Haze”, “Foxey Lady”, “Hey Joe” and “Fire” contribute to our comprehension of what made The Jimi Hendrix Experience such an important, and eventually, mythical band. They interact with each other on stage, weaving rhythms and statements and restatements of snips of melodic line as masterfully as any baroque chamber ensemble performing Bach counterpoint. To be able to compare the greatly varied versions of many of these classics allows us a special, invaluable glimpse into the band’s ability to improvise according to mood and audience reaction.
And this is the key to the importance of this Winterland set: as historically momentous as Hendrix was in the studio, it was on stage where his genius was truly revealed. It was where his spirit exploded to the maximum, and where his ability to coax the sounds he heard in his head, his heart, and his soul to escape through his long, almost wispy fingers. To witness this level of brilliance over the course of three successive nights at what was arguably the band’s pinnacle is nothing short of mind-blowing.
Avoid these recordings at your own peril. Those of us who have taken the plunge will continue to be awash in the pure magic and emotion of one of musical history’s unparalleled trailblazers and absolute masters of this art form.