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OPINION: Exploring a rock legend’s roots

November 19, 2010
By MARK J. MILLER, staff writer

This week I review a new Hendrix release from Columbia Legacy.

"West Coast Seattle Boy - the Jimi Hendrix Anthology" is Columbia Legacy's newest, full-scale Hendrix retrospective since the company came to terms with the Hendrix estate and began releasing material held up by nearly 40 years of legal wrangling.

While for decades MCA had the rights to releasing Hendrix material - and did a very good job of doing so in my opinion - the Hendrix family finally acquired control of Hendrix's vast legacy of recorded material and went with Columbia a few years ago.

Legacy began its Hendrix re-issue campaign by re-releasing the Hendrix "big three" albums, including "Are You Experienced?," Hendrix's explosive 1967 debut, "Axis: Bold as Love" and "Electric Ladyland," all with remastered sound and bonus DVDs containing mini-documentaries on the making of the the guitar wizard's official masterpieces.

Legacy also re-released a slew of posthumous compilations previously released by MCA, including "Live at Woodstock," "Live on the BBC" and "Blues," among others. While nothing earth-shattering or essential was included with the re-issues, each also contained bonus DVDs.

Legacy also recently released "Valleys of Neptune" earlier this year and marketed it as a "new" Hendrix album, which was a stretch at best, since the album contained mostly live and alternate studio material of Hendrix songs that have been around forever. Even the title track had been released before, although in an altered format. "Valleys of Neptune" would never have passed Hendrix's muster as a "new" release, but even non-essential Hendrix is worth listening to, in my humble opinion.

Now comes the anthology, containing an interesting grab bag of unreleased odds and ends along with a documentary DVD. It's worth comparing this to MCA's Hendrix anthology, released in 2000, which was a gold mine of fabulous unreleased live Hendrix and amazing studio jams with everyone from Buddy Miles to jazz organist Larry Young.

Maybe it's not fair to compare the two, but you have to judge the quality of what's in each box. And while there's lots of interesting stuff on the new anthology, it seems the undiscovered Hendrix well may finally be running dry.

Hendrix was a recording freak, and my guess is every one of his live shows was legally or illegally taped. He probably recorded more studio material in his short three years of fame than any of his 1960s contemporaries with the possible exception of Bob Dylan. In fact, there's so much unreleased Hendrix material that's of interest to collectors the estate even began its own "bootleg" series, Dagger Records, which has so far released 12 "official" Hendrix bootlegs, many of them quite good.

There have been countless Hendrix bootlegs and legally questionable European "imports" released since his demise, and it seemed like the Hendrix gold mine might run on forever.

The biggest problem with "West Coast Seattle Boy" isn't the quality of the material but the fact it's all pretty much been heard before.

Much of the billed "alternate recordings" of well-known songs on the anthology are barely different from the officially released versions. I don't think taking part of a recording that was slightly changed or added to with an overdub or two could really honestly be called an "alternate" studio recording, but that's exactly what the anthology would have us believe.

For example, the so-called "alternate" studio versions including Hendrix classics such as "Fire," "Love or Confusion" and "May This Be Love" are no more than the pre-dubbed officially released versions of the same stuff we've all already heard a million times. A few others are merely the guide tracks sans vocals being passed off as "alternate" recordings when they are no such thing. Dishonest and ridiculous.

The anthology also contains some unreleased studio jams, none of them compelling or essential. Now I know why they went unreleased.

What is enjoyable are the unreleased live versions of Hendrix classics, as that's where things really began to become interesting. An incendiary live version of "Red House" in Berlin and a blistering "Stone Free" recorded at the Fillmore East nightclub in New York City in 1969 with the Band of Gypsys are more of what I was really hoping for.

It's not all all bad news for Hendrix fans, however, as the DVD documentary with bassist Bootsy Collins of Parliament/Funkadelic fame acting as the voice of Hendrix in his own words is superb and eye-opening. But it's the first disc of Hendrix's recordings when he toured the R&B "chitlin' circuit" playing guitar for the Isley Brothers and Little Richard that really caught my ear, as his distinctive playing can be recognized even going back to his first recordings in the early 1960s. A treasure trove of 1960s R&B, the material is fascinating, as Hendrix's extroverted style can be heard trying to break free from the somewhat confining nature of the genre.

It seems Johnny Allen Hendrix was already Jimi Hendrix years before when he was struggling to earn food money as a backup guitarist playing one-nighters behind bigger acts. It's fascinating to explore his roots and how he developed his entirely visionary and unique style.

(Miller is co-editor of Weekender.)

 
 

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