By October 1968, the Jimi Hendrix Experience was on top of the rock 'n' roll world. The band's December 1967 album Axis: Bold As Love would rise to number three on the Billboard magazine Top 200 albums chart, on its way to eventual multi-platinum sales. Hendrix and the original Experience line-up of bassist Noel Redding and drummer Mitch Mitchell would sell out six shows over three nights at San Francisco's famed Winterland arena in advance of the impending release of their ground-breaking Electric Ladyland album.
A handful of performances from the three October 1968 Winterland concerts were previously released in 1987 by Rykodisc as Live At Winterland. In September 2011, however, Sony Legacy Recordings, working with Experience Hendrix, provided these legendary shows the respect they deserve with the release of both a single-CD compilation of the performances as well as a deluxe four-disc boxed set with performances from all three nights. The single-disc Winterland "highlights" set stands well on its own, representing an amazing document of the band's incredible three-night stand in San Francisco.
The Jimi Hendrix Experience's Winterland
From the first notes of Winterland, the band blazes right into the slippery groove of "Fire," a red-hot rocker with a rattletrap riff, some of Jimi's most sexually suggestive lyrics, and an undeniable grouping of short, shocking solos that dance feverishly alongside Mitchell's crashing cymbals and drumbeats. Running a rapid-paced three-anna-half minutes, this performance would make for raucous radio airplay. After a short spoken intro, the band spins headfirst into the familiar "Foxey Lady," a brief psychedelic passage leading into the bold, larger-than-life riff that serves as the song's foundation. This live version is stretched slightly from the original, but remains raw, muscular, and stunning with Hendrix's guitar squealing like an animal in heat as Mitchell bangs the crap out of the cans.
Hendrix's trademark freefalling extended jam on Bob Dylan's "Like A Rolling Stone" is simply stunning on Winterland. Running eleven minutes, Jimi's performance runs the gamut from electric folk-rock to soulful blues, the entire song peppered with brilliant fretboard magic that is at once both subtle and dazzlingly audacious. Redding's bass play rides low in the arrangement, and Mitchell's chaotic percussion creeps in from the edges, but this is Jimi's showcase moment. The garage-rock staple and Hendrix hit "Hey Joe" is no less remarkable, Hendrix's dark-hued performance drenched in malevolent emotion.
Sunshine of Your Love
One of the highlights of this Winterland compilation is the band's raging cover of Eric Clapton and Cream's "Sunshine of Your Love." While the original was a murky mix of psychedelic rock and British blues, Hendrix's live take on the song doesn't mimic Cream's as much as deconstructs it, changing the tempo and re-making it into an inspired instrumental performance that showcases the skills of all three players, with Jimi embellishing Clapton's guitar parts with his own impressive flights of fancy. One of Hendrix's most beloved songs, "Little Wing" is a mid-tempo ballad, with poetic lyrics and a hypnotizing melody, Jimi's familiar haunting riff running through the song. Hendrix's solos here are wonderfully dreamlike, often echoing the melody but sometimes flying off into the ether with reckless abandon.
The angst-laden lyrics of "Manic Depression" foreshadow punk rock a decade early, but the song's soundtrack is a cacophonic symphony of tortured guitar, thundering drumbeats, and blustery, deep bass lines. The powerful "Voodoo Child (Slight Return)" is the perfect fusion of blues and rock, taking the blueprint written by Clapton, Jimmy Page, and those other Brits that fancied themselves bluesmen and setting it on fire. This performance hits your ears like a nuclear bomb, Hendrix's soulful vocals all but lost beneath a hurricane-strength squall of feedback-drenched guitar and galloping drumbeats. The classic "Purple Haze" continues this instrumental slaughter, the opening riffs pumped up on adrenaline and steroids as the Experience rattles the rafters with an explosive, unforgettable take on one of their signature songs.
The Reverend's Bottom Line
The long out-of-print Live At Winterland doesn't hold a candle to this 2011 reissue. While I don't have the original Rykodisc version for comparison, I can tell that only six songs from that CD are reprised here, and from the running time it appears that these are different performances anyway. No matter, really, because even if you have that album, you're going to want this one, which is as fiery a collection of Hendrix live jams as will ever batter your ears into blissed-out submission.
Hardcore fans, of course, are going to want to invest the $50 or so for the deluxe four-CD Winterland box set, which includes a rare Hendrix interview. The Winterland box includes some solid obscurities as well, like a cover of Howlin' Wolf's "Killing Floor" with Jefferson Airplane bassist Jack Casady, and the band's rowdy take on the Troggs' "Wild Thing." Either way you roll, you can't go wrong, and the single-disc "highlights" CD of Winterland stands well on its own as an incredible live document of the Jimi Hendrix Experience. (Experience Hendrix/Sony Legacy Recordings, released September 13, 2011)
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