When Jimi Hendrix took to the stage at the Isle of Wight festival on 30th August 1970, almost some two years had passed since his last performance in England. How he must have felt is anyone’s guess. After all it was the U.K. which made him, although it was in his native America that the real money was to be made, mainly through performing in stadiums which were better known for their football and baseball games than rock concerts. What Hendrix got paid for playing this gig I have no idea, but regrettably it would prove to be his last (in England at least), as if there was some alignment of the Heavens going on out there in the universe writing scripts which humanity itself had yet to write.
Comparisons between his performance at Woodstock (held just under a year earlier) and Isle of Wight are valid, in the sense that both were seminal events, although not as disciplined, musically speaking, as Jimi himself might have wanted. But even on a bad day Hendrix could still outshine the brightest of stars around him, which gives one an indication of how luminous he really was in contrast to the majority of his contemporaries.
Aware of his long absence from the very country which not only nurtured him but launched his career as we all now know it, Hendrix decided to open his performance with an interpretation of “God Save the Queen”, a version which probably would send the entire royal family into a state of permanent apoplexy, had they have been in attendance that is. Jimi keeps the British theme going with a brief and rough workout of the Beatles’ “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band”, a song he used to perform when he lived in London in 1967. Hendrix rapidly segues into “Spanish Castle Magic”, a song he also played at Woodstock, although for some reason it seems a little out-of-place here, at a time when he had so much new and more interesting material in the can. Surprisingly he launches into the old crowd favourite “All Along the Watchtower”, a song which he rarely performed, and when he did, it was often with a certain degree of disdain. The original studio version was so intricate and complex, that it’s no wonder Jimi often felt a genuine reluctance to perform it live, although here he sounds like he’s simply going through the motions. He puts a mountain of energy and soul into “Machine Gun”, the next track, and at a whopping twenty-two minutes that’s no easy feat. Despite feedback and other technical problems, Hendrix attacks his guitar and no doubt the local sheep and cattle with his incendiary leads, and extended improvisational solos. The kind of blues made by people who were born on Saturn. And after that Homeric epic, we have a lively “Lover Man”, followed by a perfunctory “Freedom”. Hendrix tones things down with his own classic take on the blues with “Red House”, and at eleven minutes, it doesn’t disappoint. And as frustrated as he may have been with his playing, I’d say that he was being a little too hard on himself. No-one else back then could quite manage to make their guitar speak in tongues like Hendrix, and based on the crowd’s response upon the song’s conclusion, I’d say that they would all agree. “Dolly Dagger” is one of the few moments where Hendrix seems like he’s actually interested, while on “Midnight Lightning” he just comes across as knackered.
Jimi had played “Foxy Lady” enough times that he could have done it in his sleep, to the extent that the audience wouldn’t have known whether he was awake or otherwise. Hendrix obviously felt that way himself, but still, as on the chitlin circuit, he blisters his way through it like a true professional. A thunderous “Message to Love” follows, before he moves into a hypnotic “Hey Baby (New Rising Sun)”, one of the most delicate and thoughtful moments of the concert, and an exquisite song overall. Hendrix somehow finds the energy to transport the audience into outer space with “Ezy Ryder”, while pleasing them no end (ironically) with an indifferent and disinterested execution of “Hey Joe”. Not so “Purple Haze”, and the next song, “Voodoo Chile (Slight Return)”, which sees Jimi embark on a scorched earth policy, whose playing reveals both his strengths as well as weaknesses. After an extended drum solo by Mitch Mitchell, Hendrix ends with “In from the Storm”, another explosive song, and one which pointed at his new funk-rock direction.
Live at the Isle of Wight may not be one of Jimi’s greatest performances, but it has its moments, enough to make it worthwhile investigating, even if that means sitting through an entire twenty-two minutes of “Machine Gun”. Watching it on DVD merely enhances the experience, observing Hendrix screw his face up when he felt he’d made a mistake, and whose disdain at his own performance is at times conspicuous. Some years ago I was having a drink with someone who had actually been there, and when I commented that Hendrix’s gig was a little sub par, he told me that he and his friends actually thought it rather good. So there you go. Sitting in one’s living room is obviously not the same as actually having heard and witnessed an event in person. Sadly, this was Hendrix’s last professionally recorded concert, the first of what would turn out to be his final ever tour. Had he remained in New York, and continued working on his next album, which was already nearing completion, I’m sure that the world would have enjoyed many more years of incredible music. But it was not to be, as he would be dead less than three weeks later. And I suppose it is therefore befitting that the country which turned him into an international superstar, should be the same country in which he died, almost exactly four years after he first arrived in London. The wheel of Fate had indeed completed its circuit.