Raising Hell With Hendrix
Like most of my friends, I heard my first Jimi Hendrix album after the legendary guitarist had died. Not surprising, because Hendrix died in 1970 and when he lived, he’d just four albums to his credit. I think the first Hendrix album that I got to listen to was Are You Experienced, which released in 1967, and had memorable songs such as Foxy Lady, Fire, Manic Depression and so on. Hendrix’s guitar, when you first heard it (and it was already the mid-1970s when I experienced Hendrix, at least five years after he died at 27) left an indelible mark. His unconventional use of the wah-wah pedal and amplifier feedback distortions were unlike anything that I’d heard before.
So were his lyrics. On Purple Haze, he sang: “Excuse me, while I kiss the sky” a phrase that drove us young teenagers, desperately seeking to be cool and rebellious, wild. Then, later, we saw films—of Hendrix burning his guitar at the Monterey Pop festival in 1967 and of him strumming with his teeth at Woodstock in 1969—and the legend around the man grew for us. His untimely death, which is frequently clubbed together with the equally untimely deaths of Janis Joplin and Jim Morrison, did nothing to ebb the posthumous fan following that he had and still does.
In fact, there have been a dozen studio albums released after his death compared to the four that were released while he was alive. And the latest of these came in the first week of this March when People, Hell & Angels, a collection of a dozen hitherto unreleased recordings in 1968-69 by Hendrix and a band that comprised Billy Cox (bass guitar), Buddy Miles and Mitch Mitchell (drums) and Juma Sultan (congas) but also featuring some unexpected guest musicians. On one track Stephen Stills plays the bass; on another Lonnie Youngblood (a saxophonist and frequent Hendrix collaborator) sings; and on yet another, New Orleans’ R&B pianist James Booker joins in.
In the last couple of years that Hendrix was alive, he played several sessions in many studios, sometimes recording secretly, and collaborating with different musicians. A few years ago, a friend had pointed me to Raw Blues, a collection of 17 (perhaps bootlegged) Hendrix blues songs, a couple of which appear on this new album, albeit in very different versions.
People, Hell & Angels is a showcase of Hendrix’s versatility. The wah-wah pedal and feedback distortions are certainly all intact (so Hendrix fans have nothing to fear) but there is a range of genres—down-home blues, R&B-inflected rock, psychedelia and even funk.
On most tracks, it is Hendrix who dominates — with his guitar that sounds like two or three people riffing together, and with his vocals that have his characteristic almost somnolent drawl—but on some, such as Let Me Move You, Hendrix steps back and allows the sax player Youngblood to star, even with the vocals. It results in a superb R&B song. Or on Mojo Man, a funky track reminiscent of New Orleans, on which Booker plays the piano. Of course, that is not to say that you don’t get Hendrix’s searing rock guitar solos. On Izabella, his solo is to die for. And then, as I said, there are the surprises—the fat bass line in Somewhere, courtesy Stephen Stills.
The good thing about People, Hell & Angels is that it sounds fresh and unaltered by technology. The 12 aren’t unfinished songs that were dubbed over or redone by others post-recording. They’re a set of great Hendrix songs and, in sharp contrast to my childhood fascination with Hendrix’s connection to on-stage pyrotechnics, getting high and teeth-strumming, this is an album with which I found myself enjoying Hendrix’s music once again, nearly 43 years after his death.
Phoenix, the French pop band, caught the attention of the world in 2009 with their album titled Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix and particularly with the song, Lisztomania. Peppy and infectious, Phoenix’s music is a delight. Next month, a new Phoenix album, Bankrupt!, will be released. A single from the album, titled Entertainment, is already out and going by how it sounds, Bankrupt! is unlikely to disappoint.