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OPINION: ‘Winterland Hendrix’ box set a cool item

August 18, 2011
By MARK J. MILLER - Staff writer ( , The Herald-Star

This week I review the upcoming "Winterland Hendrix" box set, set to drop Sept. 13 by Sony Legacy.

The four CD box set - which includes an extra fifth bonus disc if purchased through - captures most of the Jimi Hendrix Experience's three-day stint held Oct. 10-12, 1968, at the famed Winterland Ballroom in San Francisco. The box set includes live, extended chestnuts of the early Hendrix selections off the band's first ground-breaking album "Are You Experienced?" released in early 1967. The box set also includes an inner booklet with the historical significance of the show and will retail for around $40, which is a pretty good price seeing most of the material hasn't ever been officially released except for a single compilation CD released by Rycodisc in 1986, a CD which I own.

Other tracks include versions of Bob Dylan's "Like a Rolling Stone," the then-not-yet-released "Voodoo Chile (Slight Return)," the blues standards "Killing Floor" and "Catfish Blues," the FM-radio staples "Hey Joe," "Manic Depression" and several instrumental versions of Cream's "Sunshine of Your Love."

Several of the songs were repeated on consecutive nights, but the improvising power of the Experience makes each one substantially different, holding interest for the listener.

The Jimi Hendrix Experience was a relatively new item to rock fans in the states in 1968, although there already was quite a buzz about this crazy, new guitar player after Hendrix returned from England with a new, freaked-out image and two skinny, pale white guys - Mitch Mitchell on drums and Noel Redding on bass.

No one had ever really seen anything like Hendrix before, let alone heard music like his at the time. Wearing outrageous clothing and sporting a not-yet-quite-fashionable "afro" - Mitchell and Redding also sported towering afros as well, thanks to lots of hair processing -the Jimi Hendrix Experience came back to America retooled and primed to take the continent by storm.

None of this would have meant anything, as there were lots of bands competing to be more over-the-top than the previous "breakout" band, and the shock value of Hendrix and compatriots would soon have worn off if the music wasn't any good.

But the music was good - in fact, it was phenomenal. Not that the recording of "Are You Experienced?" was all that and a bag of chips.

Back in the day recording engineers didn't quite know what to do about the deafening amplifier levels Hendrix preferred, not to mention the gobs of tortured distortion he used with the unlikely choice of a Fender Stratocaster turned upside down and played left-handed style. But the quality of the songs and the sonic impact of "Purple Haze" and "Foxy Lady" were undeniable to underground rock radio and listeners, as well as the majestic beauty of the Bob Dylan-influenced "The Wind Cries Mary" or the feedback-laced protest song about the dismal plight of modern Native Americans, "I Don't Live Today." That Hendrix was a player of deep substance was proved by the remarkable addition of a straight-up blues, "Red House," criminally left off the initial American release of "Are You Experienced?" because record company pros at the time believed no one wanted to hear a black man play a straight-up blues on a rock record. Whatever.

"Red House" would become a tour-de-force and juggarnaut for Hendrix live.

Although the lyrics were more a parody, chock-full of "my-woman-done-me-wrong-she-put-gasoline-in-my-soup" blues' cliches, there was nothing funny about Hendrix's guitar gymnastics and pyrotechnics on "Red House," and it soon became the word that Hendrix was a player of remarkable inventiveness and substance among the "hipporatti" of the late 1960s. Fellow guitar gods Keith Richards, Eric Clapton, Jeff Beck and Pete Townsend came forth and genuflected before Hendrix's greatness, singing his praises to the fledgling rock press of the time and cementing Hendrix's stature.

It didn't hurt that "Are You Experienced?" hung together pretty well as a song cycle when compared to other concept pop albums of the era, including the Beatles' "Sgt. Peppers."

But the skinny was that to really "experience" the Experience was to see them live, and Hendrix, Mitchell and Redding toured constantly in 1968, playing whenever and whenever they could. Often tired and constantly fighting equipment failure because of the unreliability of early Marshall amplifiers and his physical, brutal playing style taking a toll on a number of damaged Stratocasters, Hendrix and the Experience could play lackluster shows or shine like the sun, depending on the mood of the players, the equipment and the crowd.

"Hendrix at Winterland" has some of both, with Hendrix clearly not happy with the equipment not being able to keep up with his brilliance. Constantly vocalizing his frustrations to the audience, there are lots of gaps where the momentum is interrupted by tuning, fixing amplifiers and the like, To be honest, I really could have lived without the in-between song chatter and gaps, even if they are of historical importance among some Hendrix completists.

There's also lots of sloppy playing, particularly with Redding's sometimes-plodding bass and Mitchell's completely over-the-top drumming style failing to lock-in for the star attraction, and there are times when they both threaten to sink the ship. Some of the extended jams, a time when Hendrix usually played his best, are almost painful to bear as the rhythm section falls almost completely apart. It's easy to hear why a lot of this material hasn't been released before.

Still, there are moments when everything clicks and Hendrix crafts towering, spiraling cathedrals of crystalline, architectural beauty with his stunning and never-ending variations with simple pentatonic scales.

In this regard Hendrix really had no equal save for some jazz musicians, and he mostly reminds me of saxophonist John Coltrane's pentatonic explorations, anther player who could stay "in the zone" for long periods and possessed the same plasticity with musical time. Both of these musicians had the ability to virtually "suspend" time, as they subdivided the quarter note into any subdivision they chose - and it was all organic and based on feel. Amazing?

These moments are what I love about Hendrix, and there is no way I'm going to miss that. At $40 there is enough substance on "Winterland Hendrix" to make it a safe bet for the Hendrix fan.

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