As rock icons go, Jimi Hendrix is pretty much on a massive pedestal all by himself if you consider the number of guitarists and bands who have tried to assume — most unsuccessfully — his very large mantle in the 37 years since his premature death. Experience Hendrix is an earnest celebration of the man and his music’s vast, enduring influence, evidenced in part by the array of major talent — including former band mates Mitch Mitchell and Billy Cox — involved in the latest tour, which launched Wednesday night at DAR Constitution Hall in D.C. Yet while the heart of this project’s latest incarnation seems in the right place, the unevenness of the debut performance made for a wobbly tribute to a man whose deeply felt music and guitar work merit more attention — and sensitivity — than they got.
Originally conceived in 2004, Experience Hendrix opened its first tour in the flamboyant axeman’s home town of Seattle and played a limited engagement on the West Coast.
The second tour, to play similarly in the East, is fronted, as before, by Cox, Buddy Guy and Kenny Wayne Shepherd, along with other six-string heavyweights like Mick Taylor and Robby Krieger, as well as pedal-steel monster Robert Randolph, among others.
Truly special guests include Jimi Hendrix Experience drummer Mitchell and blues pillar Hubert Sumlin (formerly of Muddy Waters’ band).
You’d think that kind of firepower would blow a roof off. It probably would have, if the performance had resembled more of a rehearsed gig instead of a jam. Intros and endings called raggedly on the fly, schizophrenic use of overdriven tones, sound mixes occasionally out of control, volumes almost at brain damage levels: You can hear this kind of stuff at open mics in just about any bar.
Not that there weren’t polished, affecting moments of the Hendrix catalog, such as ex-Doors man Krieger solidly delivering the power riffs of “Manic Depression” as Noah Hunt (vocalist in Shepherd’s band) belted the soaring lyrics. Or Randolph wielding razor-like leads during “Purple Haze.”
But the musical highlight had almost nothing to do with Hendrix, except in that he was heavily influenced by the blues, particularly the playing of Albert King: Guy and Sumlin traded licks in a wonderfully nuanced and layered medley of standards that featured Guy invoking King’s style at one point. The duet might have gone on longer, had a fan not screamed out her demand for getting back to Jimi.
Too often during the three-hour show, though, Shepherd and others mistook volume and speed for music. The chops on stage were plentiful and awesome. But Hendrix had more than chops: Even his work on the rowdiest of tunes rang clear with not just technical precision but a pulsing soul — sadly in short supply when it was most needed Wednesday night.
Tour concludes in Gotham on Oct. 22.