Jimi Hendrix: Blues

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I can foresee the day when Jimi Hendrix fans around the world will bow their heads in existential angst and weep uncontrollably upon the realisation that there is nothing left remaining in the vaults to sate their obsessive appetites. For let’s face it, the man’s career, at least as far as his first solo album is concerned, lasted barely four years. So how much can we expect from such a short period of time? The answer is quite a bit, if the tape library is anything to go by.

Jimi Hendrix means so many things to so many people. Psychedelic freak-show, master axe-man, rock and roll super-stud, you name it. But until this compilation came along, few would have given much thought to Hendrix the bluesman. Strip away all the special effects, i.e. fuzz, wah wah, univibe etc. and what do you have left? The blues, that’s what. Muddy Waters, B.B. King, Buddy Guy, Howlin’ Wolf, Robert Johnson, John Lee Hooker, the list goes on and on. Beyond every other style, the blues informed Hendrix’s approach more than any other. Sure, you had R&B, Soul, funk, rock, jazz, even classical, but the blues was at the centre of everything he did, even if you can’t hear it. And that’s what makes this album clear from the first song to the last. But beware; if you’re expecting a refined and polished product you should hesitate before pressing play. Because this is a compilation made up of sweaty socks and soiled underpants, all thrown in to the washing machine, to make up what is essentially a compendium of disparate recordings which stem from his first year in London, to a performance several months before he died.

The album opens with an impromptu rendition of “Hear My Train”, recorded, and more importantly, filmed in December 1967. The 12-String he plays sounds a little out of tune, at least at the start, but that doesn’t matter; because once he shifts into the main groove, Jimi proves that he wasn’t just into post-war electric blues, but pre-war blues as well, whose rhythms hint at something even more ancient.

Next is “Born Under a bad Sign”. Billy Cox’s bass line is far looser, and funkier than the version Albert King (another left-handed guitarist) released on his landmark album of the same name. Cream also issued a version of their own of course, however Hendrix’s interpretation bears little resemblance to either, serving here as nothing more than a template for some free-form inter-planetary jamming into the outer, and inner, regions of Jimi’s mind, never to be revisited.

And now we have “Red House”, Hendrix’s most well-known blues composition, and one which he would often extend and embellish whenever the opportunity presented itself (which is to say, was fairly often). This particular performance dates from one of his earliest recording sessions in London, 1966, where the blues was enormously popular, thanks to the likes of John Mayall, Eric Clapton, Jeff Beck, Peter Green, as well as a plethora of other blues-besotted English musicians. So it’s not surprising that Hendrix himself would want to make his own public statement for all and sundry (and teach them white boys how it’s really done in the process).

“Catfish Blues” stems from a television appearance in Holland, 1967, and was a song he performed regularly throughout that year. Hendrix’s love of Muddy Waters’ music was no mystery, and here he absolutely rips it up, in a way Waters himself could never have imagined.

“Voodoo Chile Blues” is an extended and largely improvised workout between Hendrix, Jack Cassidy, and Steve Winwood. Three takes were performed, with the third deemed the master and set aside for inclusion on Electric Ladyland. This is the second take recorded on that evening (or was it early morning), and is an amalgam of two versions cleverly spliced together (digitally) for this release. Part of me questions this sort of practise, but if it means that we get to hear more unreleased Hendrix music of this quality , then I’m happy to put my misgivings aside (for now anyway).

“Mannish Boy” is another Muddy Waters song, and is actually a composite track consisting of different takes joined together to form a finished master. The recording sessions themselves were lengthy, and can be heard on select bootlegs in pristine quality, although are too tedious to sit through more than once. So thankfully the studio boffins have saved us the pain and compiled all the best moments into one, concise tornado of a tune.

“Once I Had a Woman” was originally issued as part of 1975s Midnight Lightning. That version contained overdubs, Alan Douglas (producer) deciding that new instrumental backing was required to make it more commercially acceptable. Finally, some twenty years later (now thirty if you count the deluxe edition of the album), we can enjoy it in all its sloppy, spontaneous glory. Clearly Hendrix was making it up as he went along, not an unusual situation for him, especially when jamming with Buddy Miles and Billy Cox, aka Band of Gypsys.

“Bleeding Heart” is another Band of Gypsys studio cut, apparently edited from a longer jam (why does that not surprise me), and is a tighter, more focused performance from the trio. Hendrix’s arrangement differs completely from Elmore James’ original twelve-bar classic. Maybe one day we will get to hear the complete recording.

A version of “Jelly 292” was included as part of the curious but ill-conceived Loose Ends album in the early 70s. This is another take from the same session, and is noticeable for being one of the few recordings Hendrix made with a pianist, in this case, the obscure, lost to history Sharon Layne. It’s an intriguing number, but nothing more.

Having two versions of “Red House” on the one compilation might seem extravagant, but considering that Hendrix rarely played it the same way twice, you’ll get no objections from me. Titled “Electric Church Red House”, this rendition is radically altered to the one he released on his first album in 1967. Captured at TTG studios in 1968, along with Mitch Mitchell and Noel Redding, it also has contributions from Buddy Miles and Lee Michaels (drums and organ respectively). Jimi unleashes some of his fiercest playing up to that point, where his strings storm and crackle, as if he had somehow plugged his guitar into Mount Olympus.

The final track, recorded at the Berkeley Community Theatre 30th May 1970, is without question one of the most passionate and imaginative explorations by Hendrix ever put to tape. “Hear My Train a Comin’” is essentially a twelve minute tour de force of near-cosmic proportions, where Jimi’s playing is as ferocious as it is inventive. The lyrics to the song are undoubtedly autobiographical (his brief rap at the start is especially personal), and whose theme is in itself common enough, having been done a hundred times before by any number of bluesmen; but it’s Hendrix’s unrehearsed and lengthy guitar solo that makes it so devastating. This is alien blues, and so far ahead of what anyone else had done, or was doing at the time, even now, that it doesn’t even sound like something any earthling could have performed much less conceived of. When Hendrix talked of “space blues” he wasn’t kidding.

Ultimately, Hendrix: Blues is an imperfect though important album, since it highlights a side to the man’s playing too often ignored by a public today more familiar with “Foxy Lady” and “Hey Joe”, as it was in his own time. Jimi himself once remarked that the blues itself was easy to play, but can be hard to feel. And in that respect, he didn’t waste a note.