Jimi Hendrix was one of the most gifted and flamboyant guitarists to have walked this earth, and had he not passed away at the tender age of twenty-seven, I’m almost certain that this world would not be quite so fascinated with each and every performance, whether brilliant or no, the great man recorded. And Live at Woodstock is a particular case in point. For over the past twenty years or so, thanks to record companies and every associated hippie franchise, what is without question the most famous and iconic music event ever held, The Woodstock Art & Music Festival, has been endlessly recycled and repackaged, allowing those who were there to reminisce before they had kids and surrendered to the system, and for those who were born after the fact, but wish they had of been there all the same. I’m sure that if time travel were possible, and anyone could just jump in their DeLorean, the official attendance record would be over a million by now, instead of the original estimate of 500,000 or so.
Hendrix himself was not only the headlining act, he was also the highest paid (free love was one thing, but obviously when it came to performing it was all strictly business). The other artists who were booked to appear could be classified under three main categories: folk, blues, and (psychedelic) rock. Day one consisted mainly of the first category, with the likes of Richie Havens, Tim Hardin, Joan Baez, and Arlo Guthrie etc. The second and third days were a lot more charged, with Santana, Mountain, Sly Stone, and The Who amongst others blowing the lysergic cobwebs of the audience. And though as diverse as many of these acts were, when Hendrix finally took the stage on that cold Monday morning with his expanded group, Gypsy Sun & Rainbows, from the very first note, it was almost like a spaceship had just landed. For while some of his contemporaries may have managed to leave earth’s orbit on occasion, Jimi’s own extraterrestrial excursions were nothing short of intergalactic in comparison.
But let’s not get too ahead of ourselves here. Like a lot of rock performances at this time, this one is far from perfect. In fact, by today’s standards, it’s pretty rough. However that’s also part of its charm and attraction, because in those days, live music was generally a seat of the pants experience, before it all became corporatised and super-slick in the following decade and beyond. Maybe if Hendrix chose to remain within his power trio format he might have unleashed something big. Instead he unleashed something else entirely. For by 1969 Jimi was striving for other sounds, seeking to expand his musical horizons in the process. And what this double cd document of that day makes clear, if anything was that Hendrix’s ambitions were beyond what his new group could handle. Although at least in theory, the concept of a larger band made sense: bring in a second guitarist (in this case Larry Lee), thus liberating Hendrix from having to cover all bases at once, plus throw in some percussionists (Juma Sultan and Jerry Velez), and there you have it, a whole new musical entity. The only problem was that things didn’t quite work out as he was originally hoping.
After a brief introduction by Chip Monck, the band launch into “Message to Love”, making its live debut in the process. What’s immediately clear is how seriously under-rehearsed they seem, where everyone, Hendrix included, appear to struggle with the arrangement. The highlight is when Jimi performs a solo which truly is out of this world. “Hear My Train” follows, and while a bit messy in places, Hendrix’s playing is ferocious throughout. His use of the univibe is especially noteworthy, and a device he would employ with devastating effect on “Machine Gun” only a few months later. “Spanish Castle Magic” is one of the more focused performances attempted on this day, where Jimi steps back to allow Lee the chance to take the lead, but unfortunately his guitar is mixed too low to the extent that he might as well not even be there.
No Hendrix show would be complete without “Red House”, a live staple, and one which always afforded Hendrix opportunity to flex some improvisational muscle. To be honest it’s not one of his best versions, but is enjoyable all the same. Things pick up with an energetic “Lover Man”, before he kicks off the crowd favourite “Foxy Lady”, during which he executes an almost free-form solo. “Jam Back at the House” simply knocks down the house, with a tornado riff that’ll make your neighbour’s windows rattle and see them diving for cover under the nearest table. This is about the closest thing to jazz-fusion as Hendrix got in a live setting.
“Izabella” was another promising song Hendrix had been working on, but here it just doesn’t quite gel, even if it does contain some stellar soloing. And now we’re back to the Experience days with an extremely high-octane rendition of “Fire”, where Mitch Mitchell gets to display his not inconsiderable skills on drums. “Voodoo Child (Slight Return)” is the following number, and at fourteen minutes, it’s one of the finest and most intense interpretations I’ve ever heard. Forget about Slash, or Eddie Van Halen, it all starts here. Such an untidy, wall of sound unlike no other, and yet it still seems to make sense somehow. The ending of this extended jam is exemplary, where Hendrix squeezes the most out of every note, before suddenly segueing into what is undoubtedly the most celebrated popular reading of the American national anthem ever performed. It is of course “The Star Spangled Banner”. Whether Hendrix’s tortured rendition was a conscious reflection on the state of modern America is anyone’s guess (he wasn’t exactly forthcoming when it came to explaining his music), but what is understood is that it became an interpretation which all youth (or at least those who subscribed to the counter-culture) could relate to. Hendrix did go on record as saying that he thought his version was beautiful, as if not understanding what all the controversy he had inadvertently created was about. My feeling is that he had succeeded in tapping into the darker side of his country, and the underbelly of the nation’s psyche. And just to keep the crowd entertained, he bursts into an explosive “Purple Haze”, at the end of which he unleashes a barrage of improvised playing after which the electric guitar would never be the same. Rock, Flamenco, heavy-metal, all of it performed in one sweeping suite of imagination, concluding with the delicately haunting and jazzy “Villanova Junction”. As an encore, Hendrix chose “Hey Joe”, probably due to being so exhausted after over two hours of playing, that he didn’t want to stretch his mind too much. But Live at Woodstock is an exhaustive experience for the listener also, and one which saw Hendrix at a crossroads of sorts, between everything he had done, and all he was about to do. As flawed as his performance was, it remains a priceless audio and visual artefact of one of the greatest genius’s popular music has ever known.