Jimi Hendrix was to modern music what William Turner was to painting more than a century before him. And like Turner, his technique and vision was so singular and revolutionary that it forever altered the way in which people heard and played the electric guitar.
Live at Berkeley, recorded on 30th May 1970, proves that Hendrix was capable of getting more out of his chosen instrument in five minutes than most other guitarists could be capable of in a whole lifetime. Such was the power and versatility of his playing.
After a brief tune up, the band launches into “Pass it On”. A tune still clearly in the developmental stage, but nice to hear all the same, since it was one of the tunes he intended to include on his next album. It ends after a brief improvised finger workout, before extending into another new song, whose soaring flamenco inspired introduction segues seamlessly into the gorgeous “Hey Baby (New Rising Sun)”, a Spanish flavoured number (and my favourite Hendrix song of all time, in case anyone cares), where the univibe rinsed chords give it a tender, haunted quality. A muscular stab at “Lover Man” is next, a straight ahead rocker, and which remains the best version he ever performed. “Stone Free” is the first of his more familiar numbers played on this evening, and it’s a doozy. “Hey Joe” follows, and while I’m sure that at this stage of his career he was undoubtedly sick to death of it, here he performs it with such delicacy and fervour one would never know. Early on in the piece he experiences some interference through his amps, but I’m sure you’ll agree that such radio intrusions merely add a certain atmosphere to the performance.
“I Don’t Live Today” is a far and far superior version to the one he recorded on his first LP, Are You Experienced. The behemoth that was “Machine Gun” had only just come out on the recent Band of Gypsys album a few months prior to Berkeley. That version sounded like thunder and lightning crashing through your sound system. This time we still have those bombs and bullets, but with Mitch Mitchell behind the drum kit we instead get a much jazzier interpretation. Hendrix’s playing is a wonder to behold (or hear), and is certainly the highlight of the concert. His improvising is literally out of this world, and I can only scarcely imagine what was going through the minds of those in the audience.
A Hendrix concert wouldn’t be complete without an expansive and energetic run through of “Foxy Lady”, where at the end he transitions into “The Star Spangled Banner”, as he did at the famous Woodstock festival the previous year. His interpretation here might lack some of the fireworks and incendiary explosions of its more famous cousin, but the crowd erupt in a near state of ecstasy all the same.
“Purple Haze” was another fan favourite one could always expect to hear. It’s hard to know whether he continued playing it because it was a guaranteed crowd pleaser, or whether it thrilled him just as much as it thrilled them. After a feedback drenched ending, Hendrix then thanks everyone for coming, before kicking off “Voodoo Child (Slight Return). And it’s a monster. At almost twice the length of the version found on Electric Ladyland, it’s an exhaustive display of Hendrix’s talents as a first class improviser.
This was the second performance of the day, yet why the first show (which was every bit as good) remains unreleased in its entirety, is strange to say the least. However most of the early show has officially found its way onto various albums/compilations over the years, so you can always compile your own edition of the concert.
There would be other performances throughout the year, most notably Atlanta and Isle of Wight, but for sheer passion and professionalism, Live at Berkeley wins hands down, and is arguably one of the man’s finest moments in front of an audience, and an essential purchase for any serious fan(atic).