Tue, Mar 5, 2013.
With the East Coast Music Awards starting Wednesday and running all this week, I'll be knee-deep in all things Atlantic Canadian for the next few days, giving you the highlights from the event, and some New Brunswickers making their presence known in Halifax. Given that, I thought I'd take time in this column to step away from the area for a moment, and look at a major new release from a bone fide superstar that's making a lot of waves.
The Jimi Hendrix catalogue has seen a staggering number of additions over the past decade, both audio and video, thanks to the Experience Hendrix company headed by his sister, Janie L. Hendrix. Since consolidating the rights, the job has been to clear up the Hendrix legacy, and present new collections that make sense of the huge amount of material that was recorded but unreleased before his death. The latest is called People, Hell and Angels, and features tracks recorded after Hendrix started experimenting in his studio with musicians other than the original Experience.
There's a lot of talk surrounding the release, advertised as "twelve previously unreleased studio tracks." That immediately has the critics crying, pointing out that versions of many of these have been out for years, in other forms. There's truth to that, but at the same time, these particular takes have not been released. Better still, they are without the notorious overdubs that would, in some cases, be added to the tracks well after his death. I'm getting pretty tired of the clamour about the takes, to be honest. Unless you're a huge fan and have purchased all and everything, these songs are going to be new to you anyway. There's not a greatest hit among them.
However, there are some fine songs. I think if you came at this album as a new listener, you'd be pretty intrigued by the tracks, and even somewhat knowledgeable fans will find lots to enjoy. The lead track, Earth Blues, is a studio number featuring the guys that would become his next group, The Band Of Gypsys, Billy Cox and Buddy Miles. It's an excellent, uptempo blues, with a fine lyric and some great licks from the man. It could have been a single. After that comes Somewhere, a song that has been subject to a few releases, again featuring later overdubs. Here, its a full original take, one with Stephen Stills guesting on bass, and another triumphant track. You got the picture; if you knew the songs from other, previous attempts at posthumous collections, this is the best, original available.
Is it a cohesive album? Not quite, there are a couple of blues instrumentals that, despite the quality, are just studio workouts, and there are a couple of interesting guest vocals cuts too. There's a cut called Mojo Man that was by his friends The Allen Brothers. One night when visiting Hendrix, he had them put the tape of the unreleased track on at the studio. Then he added his own guitar parts to it, helping create a fiery R'n'B track. It's a fantastic number, a real bonus here, but obviously not something that would have ever made a Hendrix album.
I had the chance to speak with producer John McDermott about the new collection. He works with Janie Hendrix and original Jimi engineer Eddie Kramer on all these projects. He is, of course, excited about the new album: "I'm a fan at my core, and I've been fascinating with this music. I always say, if you could find four more Robert Johnson tracks, how great that would be? Hendrix was unusual in that unlike his contemporaries, he owned his own recordings, and instead of building a mansion, he built his own studio. For him, recording was everything. He didn't have to go into Abbey Road like The Beatles. This was his chance and he ran with it."
The tracks presented here cover a couple of periods for Hendrix. There's the Band of Gypys days, plus the larger group he put together that most famously played Woodstock. While The Experience is his-best known group, McDermott thinks this collection matches up, and will alert some people to the quality of the later years. "If you're a casual fan, and listen to this, you hear three guys in their 20's, sharing a common language, the blues, and just tearing it up. On this album, this is where you start to say, wow, this guy was expanding at a terrific rate. It's not by any means the lost album. This is a collection of Jimi working outside the original band, showing him as an artist and producer. He has Billy and Buddy, and the larger Woodstock-era band. What Jimi ultimately would have released, well, we can't get into Jimi's head. But this is some powerful stuff."
McDermott confirms the releases will continue. The next is already planned: "Fantastic film and sound of Jimi at the Atlanta Pop Festival that's coming for sure. There's some great film that we've been able to get over the last two decades. Nothing articulates his power and legacy like seeing him perform live."
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Bob Mersereau has been covering music, and the East Coast Music Scene since 1985 for CBC. He's a veteran scene-maker at the ECMA's, knows where the best shows and right parties are happening, and more importantly, has survived to tell the tales. His weekly East Coast music column is heard on Shift on Radio 1 in New Brunswick each Wednesday at 4'45. He's also the author of two national best-selling books, The Top 100 Canadian Albums (2007) and The Top 100 Canadian Singles (2010).