Flamboyant performer and extraordinary guitarist Jimi Hendrix was one of the headliners of the three-day Woodstock Festival in August 1969, as well as the event's highest-paid performer. Plans were for Hendrix and his new band to close out the festival on Sunday night with a bang, but bad weather and scheduling delays pushed back Hendrix's set to early Monday morning, unexpectedly extending the Woodstock Festival by half a day.
Hendrix and his band climbed on stage to a cursory introduction, "ladies and gentlemen, the Jimi Hendrix Experience," which the guitarist quickly corrected to "Gypsy Sun and Rainbows," or just "Band of Gypsies." Accompanied by Experience drummer Mitch Mitchell and his old Army buddy and early-1960s bandmate, bassist Billy Cox, Hendrix added a second guitarist in his friend Larry Lee, as well as Latin-styled percussionists Juma Sultan and Jerry Velez.
Jimi Hendrix Live At Woodstock
The core of this new six-piece band had spent weeks at a house rented by Hendrix's management not far from Woodstock. Many believe that the addition of new players, including guitarist Lee - another chitlin' circuit survivor like Jimi and Billy - was the guitarist's attempt to get back to the R&B and blues music that he cut his teeth on. There is no doubt that the 'Gypsy Sun' line-up brought a different, and more soulful dimension to Hendrix's typical psychedelic rock sound.
No where is this more apparent than on "Hear My Train A Comin'," an incendiary six-string work out featuring some of Hendrix's best blues-rock licks and a concrete-hard rhythm courtesy of Cox and Mitchell. An amped-up, electricity-charged Delta blues song on steroids, Hendrix's often-explosive and sometimes death-defying guitar pyrotechnics here would forever write the blues-rock blueprint that would subsequently be followed by Stevie Ray Vaughan and countless others.
Something Old, Something New...
Hendrix had put together his new band in order to jam with some musicians that he enjoyed playing with, and the lengthy Woodstock set - some 140 minutes by all accounts, including false starts, sound problems, and Jimi's apologies to the crowd - was dominated by lengthy, phenomenal jams on familiar songs. From the chattering machine-gun into of "Spanish Castle Magic" to the song's breakneck solos and loping, funky groove, Hendrix and his gypsies stretch the song to better than twice its length on Axis: Bold As Love. Cox's bass lines and Mitchell's aggressive drumwork stand out on what can only be considered an urgent performance.
Ditto for the Woodstock version of the classic "Foxey Lady," the song afforded a chaotic, TNT-strength opening before jumping headfirst into its familiar groove, Hendrix's wiry guitar unwinding at unexpected moments while the band lays down a fragmented, stormy rhythm beneath his screaming six-string. The bluesy "Red House" is played reasonably straight, and significantly shorter than the aforementioned jams, but it retains Hendrix's brilliant guitarplay and deliberate, note-by-note delivery.
Jam Back At The House
Built on Mitchell's rapidfire, jazz-fusion rhythmic foundation, "Jam Back At The House" is an ambitious and rewarding performance that melds rock, jazz, and blues influences into a brand new sound. "Izabella," which would be released posthumously on Hendrix's Cry Of Love album, was the only real new tune that Hendrix had prepared for Woodstock, and it comes off pretty well.
After a brief into, the band hits an instant groove behind Jimi's energetic riff, the notes from his guitar swirling around in a hypnotic morass as the band struggles to keep up with his rough-around-the-edges accompaniment. With the rhythm guitar handled by Lee, Hendrix uses the opportunity to embroider a slashing lead across the backing soundtrack.
Hendrix's Star Spangled Banner
Hendrix's performance of the "Star Spangled Banner," featured in the film and its accompanying soundtrack album, is often considered one of the guitarist's legendary moments. This wasn't the first time that he'd cranked it out, however, and you really have to hear the moments before and after to appreciate the seamless work of art that was the closing 35-40 minutes of Hendrix's set. Starting with a breathtaking thirteen minute rendition of "Voodoo Child (Slight Return)" where Hendrix winds up his axe and lets it fly, "Star Spangled Banner" is just the climax.
Jimi and the band immediately jump into "Purple Haze" with the enthusiasm of a band of barbarians beating on the gates of civilization with bloody battle axes. Hendrix's fretwork here is blistering, tonal, shredding, powerful, and so delightfully over the top that you'd think that the term "guitar hero" was coined for just this moment. After a short improvisation piece that takes Hendrix and the band into an entirely different, albeit invigorating musical direction, along with the instrumental "Villanova Junction," they end the show with the song that launched Hendrix's star, the garage-rock classic "Hey Joe."
The Reverend's Bottom Line
Although this set has been on the street for better than a decade, Hendrix's Live At Woodstock is worth revisiting for a myriad of reasons. Not the least of these is that the fifteen performances included here on two CDs present a much more comprehensive picture of Hendrix's landmark performance at the festival that that provided by either of the two Woodstock soundtrack albums. The complete show isn't included, as a few clunkers have been ignored, and the between-song interludes have largely been cut out, but there is still over an hour and a half of music for the listener to devour.
Fronting a band with little chemistry and no time to develop it, suffering from sound issues and poor microphone set-ups (especially of the percussionists, whom you can barely hear), Hendrix delivered a stunning display of six-string virtuosity. Cranking out a fiery set of psychedelic rock and blues, Hendrix left behind what many consider to be the defining moment of his too-brief career.
Less than thirteen months after the triumph of Woodstock, Hendrix would accidently overdose, leaving behind a world of music uncreated. Live At Woodstock is one of the artist's most memorable moments, and a "must have" recording for any blues-rock fan. (Experience Hendrix/MCA Records, released July 6, 1999)