For classic rock fans, one of the more rewarding developments to occur over the last two years was the takeover of the Hendrix recording vaults by kid sister Janie and Experience Hendrix L.L.C., as well as the estate’s partnership with Sony Legacy. The resulting re-issues are a model of what labels should be doing with their archives: creating remastered, state-of the art packages with previously unreleased recordings, lavish photos, rewarding liner notes and meticulous credits that document who, what, where and when.
Since his death in September of 1970, Hendrix has served as a veritable gold mine for such labels as Reprise, Polydor and MCA, with his posthumous output exceeding the quality and quantity of the three studio releases produced during his lifetime (think “Rainbow Bridge,” “BBC Sessions,” the complete Woodstock set, et al). Sony Legacy’s “West Coast Seattle Boy” anthology is as essential as Hendrix’s stunning 1967 debut, “Are You Experienced?” And now comes the twin releases of “Hendrix in the West” and a four-disc “Winterland” box set that hit the racks on Sept. 13.
Lucky for his fans, Hendrix loved playing live, whether in front of an arena audience or jamming for radio listeners. And his engineer-producer, Eddie Kramer, an essential contributor to these reissues, worked with the guitarist documenting his performance at Woodstock and at the Fillmore East for Band of Gypsies.
Contrary to what Rolling Stone magazine published about these new releases, pound for pound (read “the most value for your dollar”), “Hendrix in the West, first issued in 1972, ” is the superior collection, with “the West” of the title loosely interpreted, given that these live tracks spanned from San Francisco in 1968 to the Isle of Wight in 1970. Aside from seldom-documented live renditions of such classics as “I Don’t Live Today” and “Spanish Castle Magic,” the CD includes definitive versions of songs made famous by Chuck Berry and Elvis Presley: “Johnny B. Goode” and “Blue Suede Shoes.”
The previously unreleased “Little Wing” from 1968 provides a pristine example of Hendrix’s ability to craft gorgeous ballads, sliding up and down on the fretboard to create voicings that sound like multiple guitarists. An absolutely incendiary version of “Fire,” from the San Diego Sports Arena, is a textbook example of how Jimi used feedback to searing effect, and how there was no pace, no matter how frenetic, that he and his rhythm section — Mitch Mitchell on drums and bassists Noel Redding and Billy Cox trading places on certain tracks — couldn’t handle.
Mitchell, whose free-form, polyrhythmic style established him as the Elvin Jones to Jimi’s John Coltrane, cannot be showcased enough to these ears, and the fact that he never played with another super group in the wake of Hendrix’s death is as inexplicable as Ringo’s lack of significant activity after the Beatles’ breakup.
“Winterland,” originally released as a more condensed collection in 1987, chronicles six concerts over three days at San Francisco’s storied venue. For those unfamiliar with that recording, two versions of “Tax Free,” a relatively obscure, if ambitious, composition written by Bo Hansson and Janne Karlsson, is the lure in a collection meant strictly for completists. Otherwise, how many live versions of “Foxy Lady,” “Purple Haze” and “Voodoo Child” does one need to own?
But then one could make the argument Jimi, like Dylan, never played a song the same way twice. And judging from the versions of “Red House” on both these collections, in a way, they never get old.