Over the past twenty years or so, there has been a steady flow of tribute albums dedicated to the late and legendary guitarist who died in 1970. The majority of which tend to be fairly low-key, independent affairs, rarely worth listening to more than a couple of times. However Stone Free is, I am happy to say, not only one of the better tributes, but also the one I tend to revisit the most (if and when I’m in the mood). There are at least two reasons for this. Firstly, the album itself was overseen by Eddie Kramer, Hendrix’s original engineer; and secondly, the artists assembled for this project were people who either knew and/or had played with Jimi, or who had a genuine passion for and understanding of his music. The players who appear can generally be categorised into two groups; the old school, represented by Buddy Guy, Eric Clapton, Jeff Beck and Pat Metheny, all of whom manage to (unsurprisingly) contribute far more convincing re-workings of Hendrix classics generally than the younger crop, here represented by Slash, Spin Doctors and Pearl Jam, amongst others. There are a few other acts which probably fall somewhere in between, namely the Pretenders, The Cure etc. So overall a pretty impressive and eclectic line-up of talent.
We open with The Cure’s extremely modern take on “Purple Haze’, replete with hip hop beats and an assortment of other overdubs, including the axe man himself. A sort of strange and wonderful cocktail of sound and textures.
Clapton was a close friend of Jimi’s (well as close as anyone could be I guess). Both respected and admired each other’s talents, sometimes roaming the clubs of New York together, with their guitars, jamming til late into the night. Therefore it is only appropriate that Clapton should be present, and his interpretation of “Stone Free” is superb. I don’t know if Eric had ever played the song before, but it’s a more than fitting homage to a long lost comrade.
If anyone ought to be playing “Red House’ then Buddy Guy’s your man, a guitar legend in his own right, and someone who influenced Jimi when he was young. Now Buddy’s had his own fair share of the blues, and as a consequence puts his own signature style on this Hendrix classic. What’s more, Chuck Berry’s long-time collaborator Johnnie Johnson plays keyboards.
Now if you’re going to cover a song like “Hey Joe” you might as well have a name like Body Count, a group I can’t say I’m familiar with, nor probably ever will be, though they manage to do a splendid job of recreating some of the menace and sense of danger Hendrix conjured on his first single. Less convincing is the Spin Doctor’s remake of “Spanish Castle Magic”. In fact I have no idea what this band is even doing on the record apart from being quite popular at the time. To be fair, their playing is competent and professional, but it’s a track which I tend to skip.
Jeff Beck and Seal blast their way through a wild and high-octane version of “Manic Depression”, where Beck in particular pulls out all the stops, making this one of the highlights of the album. Nigel Kennedy (the cockney of the violin) is the oddest inclusion here, but he does prove that one doesn’t have to be a rock musician to appreciate Jimi’s inestimable influence on popular music. What might Hendrix have thought? He’d have probably thought it was truly “outtasight!” Now the Pretenders might seem at first like an unusual bunch to cover Jimi (they covered “Room Full of Mirrors” back in 1986), but that they do, and rather well on “Bold As Love”. Chrissie Hynde’s vocals offer a new perspective, with loads of guitar and phasing thrown in for good measure.
P.M. Dawn takes “You Got Me Floating” and completely reworks the arrangement with samples and synthesizers galore, to the extent that it bears little if any resemblance to the original, with the exception of the chorus.
Slash and Paul Rogers (no stranger himself to covering Hendrix) unite with the original Band of Gypsys, aka Billy Cox and Buddy Miles for a hard rock workout of “I Don’t Live Today”. Miles and Cox are in fine form, with Slash sounding like he’s definitely in his element on this one, firing off multiple notes in all directions. Next alternative rockers Belly bash their way through a raucous “Are You Experienced?” Living Colour’s take on “Crosstown Traffic”, as enjoyable as it is, doesn’t really deviate much from the original, but is an exceptional performance all the same. Guitarist Vernon Reid certainly knows his instrument, adding a little fire of his own to the tune. Guitar Jedi-master Pat Metheny lays down a funky, almost futuristic “Third Stone from the Sun”, which interestingly includes loops from Jaco Pastorius (bass) and Jack DeJohnette (drums). I assume that the loops from Jaco are posthumous, since the bassist died in 1987.
Can you believe the first time I heard “Hey Baby (New Rising Sun)” was this version, and in Thailand of all places. The Rainbow Bridge LP had been long out of print, and copies were extremely difficult to procure (it took me a few more years to obtain one. These were the days before eBay). However I had read enough to know that it must be an important recording, and another vital piece in the Hendrix puzzle. Performed by M.A.C.C., who were a sort of ‘grunge supergroup’ made up of Pearl Jam’s Mike McCready and Jeff Clement, along with Chris Cornell and Matt Cameron from Soundgarden. Apparently McCready was wont to play “Hey Baby” at soundchecks while on tour and their rendition here is highly charged and raw, just as you’d expect, however they still manage to capture the song’s essence.
Tribute albums come and go, but Stone Free is the one that has done the distance and will no doubt continue to do so. And while as pleasurable as most of these interpretations are, I always find myself going back to Hendrix himself, whose own style was as inimitable as it is timeless.