The whole process of how to approach and manage the posthumous legacy of any given artist, especially one as prolific as Jimi Hendrix, can often be a difficult business. First there’s the procedure of listening through all the tapes, at least those that are available, in order to get some semblance of what’s there; the second is actually choosing which material best represents the artist’s exceptional talents in a way that will do him or her justice. Not an easy task to be sure, especially when the musician in question was a close friend, as was the case with Eddie Kramer, Jimi’s longtime engineer/producer, who had been allocated the painful task of deciding what was and wasn’t fit for public consumption.
Upon release in 1972, In the West was one of only two official albums issued at the time which documented Hendrix in a live setting (the other being Isle of Wight), only to be inexplicably deleted just a few years later. It was a flawed product, but an essential purchase nonetheless for any fan of the late guitarist. And now, some four decades later, a new and expanded edition has found its way on our shelves, which begs the question; if all this material can already be purchased on other compilations, what purpose can this assemblage possibly serve? There are two answers to this life-important query: one is nostalgia, the other exploitation of the many fanatics out there who will happily spend all their beer money if need be just to own anything with Jimi’s name on it, provided it contains lavish artwork and remastered sound. Such is the symbiotic (or vampiric) relationship between music lover and record company.
The album opens as it did on the original LP with two recordings from Hendrix’s performance at the 1970 Isle of Wight festival, “The Queen” and “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band”. The former is a clever if muddled interpretation of the English national anthem, in a style not too dissimilar to The Star Spangled Banner which had become a staple at his American shows. While his version of The Beatles’ “Sgt. Pepper’s…” makes clear that Jimi was keen to connect with what would have been a predominately British audience (almost two years had passed since he’d last performed in England). To be honest, both tracks are a bit sloppy, and therefore difficult to justify their inclusion here (and what does England have to do with the west anyway?). Next however is a stellar rendition of “Little Wing”, in my opinion Hendrix’s greatest ballad. Recorded at Winterland Arena, San Francisco, 12th October 1968, Jimi plays the song at a slower tempo than the original studio version, with notes that outwardly float mid-air, moving in leisurely motion through the Orion Nebula then back again.
What was not on the original album is “Fire”. This version stems from the San Diego Sports Arena, on the night of 25th May, 1969, just a month before the Experience would break up. This is R&B meets Apollo 11, and probably something else I can’t find the words for. And if that’s not sweltering enough, “I Don’t Live Today”, also from San Diego, is an aggressive, muscular excursion of heavy riffs and howling tortured feedback. Very cinematic if you ask me. “Spanish Castle Magic”, from the same show, is another brawny outpouring of improvisation, where Hendrix performs with utmost abandon, though without losing control of the song itself. His performance of “Red House” which follows, is almost universally regarded as one of the definitive versions he ever played (something I’m sure Jimi would have been proud to hear). While certain similarities can be made with some of the extended workouts of Cream, here Hendrix is far looser, throwing in some pre-fusion explorations along with a radical interpretation of the more traditional blues form. Imagine Muddy Waters playing heavy metal.
Culled from 30th May 1970, is Jimi’s super-charged interpretation of Chuck Berry’s classic “Johnny B. Goode”. I bet the audience weren’t expecting this, and neither was I upon my first listen (on vinyl of course). It’s a bit like some rally driver picking you up in his racing car, and tearing around the block at a hundred miles an hour, before suddenly dropping you off at the same spot, before you’ve even had a chance to work out what the hell happened and where those few minutes went. “Lover Man” is an equally intense and powerful exercise and remains for me the most authoritative version Hendrix ever performed. “Voodoo Chile (Slight Return)” ends the album, where one can hear Hendrix pushing his imagination and technical abilities for all their worth. Although it’s extraordinary to think that in just a few months time he would be exploring some of the same songs, including this one, but in a more complex and mature fashion at the Woodstock festival, appearing and sounding like an almost entirely different guitarist altogether. And still just a few months after that, perform at the Fillmore East with the Band of Gypsys.
As cynical as I might be about the re-release of this album in general, it’s difficult to ignore the importance of these recordings. Hendrix was and remains the preeminent pioneer of his elected instrument, someone whose technique and imagination continues to baffle and impress more than forty years after his passing. And whether exploited or not, those achievements are nevertheless well worth celebrating. In the West is a worthy testament to his talents.