As hard as it is to believe, there was once a time when music festivals were big events, and actually meant something, and when I say big, I don’t mean the sort of happenings we see today, sponsored by multi-national corporations, where the majority of the audience are garbed in all manner of corporate clothing (produced in some third world country for a pittance) waving their hands in the air to whatever flavour of the month band or artist who is exponentially espousing the virtues of individualism amidst an homogenized world, all the while urging you to rage against the machine and any other aspect of conformity one can think of. However in the 1960’s things were different, very different, to the extant that at any given festival the concept of catering was a slab of beer and a few bottles of whisky. Where people were generally left to their own devices, making it up as they went along and simply just to be there was virtually an event in itself. That if you attended such an event, you’d have something to tell your children (provided they’d even care; considering how many would grow to become the conservative little shits that they are. Much to their parent’s opprobrium I’m sure).
The Miami Pop Festival, held over two days on 18 and 19 of May 1968 was a continuation of numerous other rock festivals which had been staged all over America, the most famous of which was Monterey, held less than a year earlier, and which would serve as the template for many youth festivals to come. Michael Lang, whose name would remain synonymous with Woodstock, the most renowned of the era, was the organiser, who had seen how successful Monterey had been, and thought he’d like to put together something comparable. Amongst some of the acts who were booked to perform were Frank Zappa’s Mothers of Invention, Chuck Berry, Steppenwolf, John Lee Hooker, and of course the one and only Jimi Hendrix, who had become one of rock’s most significant live draw cards.
After a bit of tuning up, and testing the amps, Hendrix launches the proceedings with some cosmic feedback, before playing the familiar chords of “Hey Joe”. Mitch Mitchell’s drums sound a little flat, no doubt due to the primitive miking technology at the time, but are no less powerful as a result. And although he’d played the song a thousand times before, here Jimi performs it with conviction, no doubt eager to please the audience. But no sooner has it finished then we’re off again with the one tune Prince has spent a lifetime attempting to write, and that is the seductive and horny “Foxy Lady”. Hendrix’s use of feedback must have had the crowd in wonder, like watching a magician continually pull rabbits out of his hat, to keep you guessing and wondering ‘how does he do that?’ “Tax Free” follows, where Hendrix pushes more than a few sonic limits, and gets to break free from the pop-song convention altogether, to not only blow your mind, but probably your speakers too. This is also where Mitch gets to flex some jazz muscle, encouraging Jimi even more to break out into the universe.
The version of “Fire” here bursts through the gates like a stallion on heat, with enough hot licks to last most guitarists a lifetime. This is R&B pushed to territories it had never gone before. After which Hendrix slows things down with “Hear My Train A Comin”, a heavy riff led blues which takes the listener back to the Mississippi Delta via Muddy Waters and even all the way to Africa. “I Don’t Live Today” is all scratchy riffs and atonal feedback, a bit like The Who meets John Cale. If there’s one reason to own this album, it’s “Red House”, a journey of Homeric proportions where the listener simply can’t wait to hear what’s coming next. A jazzy interlude, or a superlative mind-bending solo, across sonic landscapes never before imagined? Only one man knew how to take you on that voyage, and the people before the stage were hearing him that day.
Jimi winds things up with the crowd pleasing “Purple Haze”, an explosive rendition and one which sees him play the Devil’s chord for all it’s worth. But let’s not forget that Hendrix understood the concept of theatrics, giving the audience what it wants, as well as providing a balance between entertainment and the more serious side of music, which is what this document preserves, in all its rough and ragged glory. An artist whose genius was at this point burgeoning on the cusp of true greatness.
As a so-called additional bonus we have two tracks from Hendrix’s afternoon show the following day: “Fire” and “Foxy Lady”. Both are as equally exciting if not more so than that heard earlier. Apparently a rain storm prevented Hendrix from finishing his second set, which means this is all we have left of these two most historic performances. I wonder, some forty-five years after the fact, whether anyone who was there, would have regarded it as nothing more than some cultural artefact which future generations might consider irrelevant. And in this heavily corporative world, I’m now wondering if they’re right.