France’s love affair with American music, especially jazz and blues in particular, goes all the way back to the 1920’s, from Josephine Baker to Nina Simone only a few decades later. Certainly the French were no strangers when it came to new and exciting forms of artistic expression, and whose appreciation of high culture was perhaps somewhat more sophisticated than that of suburban America or Britain (let’s not discuss Australia). So it’s not surprising that when Jimi Hendrix first toured France in 1966 (at the bequest of French Singer and actor Johnny Hallyday, who had asked The Experience to be his supporting act), the French took to Jimi’s music like ducks to water. Live in Paris and Ottawa 1968 captures The Jimi Hendrix Experience in outstanding form, and while the sound quality is not exactly of the sort typical of today (how could it be), still, the band’s performance more than compensates for any lack in audio fidelity.
Now this is not the first time this concert has been made available to the public; the first release was on the excellent four CD boxed set Stages, back in 1991. Although the source that was used was an unlicensed copy mastered from a cassette tape. For this compilation, the original master reels were employed, but I’ve done a comparison (through headphones), and to be honest I can’t discern all that much difference between the two (maybe your ears might be superior to mine).
So, without further ado, let’s dust off our crushed velvet jackets, punch the co-ordinates into the TARDIS and go all the way back to the Olympia Theatre in Paris, France on 29 January 1968 (followed by a quick stop off at the Capital Theatre in Ottawa, Canada just two months later).
Hendrix obliterates the audience with his own unique take on the classic “Killing Floor”, which is an exercise in raw dynamics, where he launches the song into the stratosphere and beyond. What Chester Burnett or Howlin’ Wolf would have made of this hyper-calorie burning interpretation is anyone’s guess. And while a little less frantic than his performance at Monterey the previous year, it is certainly no less intense.
After some tuning up, Hendrix performs his own take on Muddy Water’s “Catfish Blues”. Similar in pace and style to the version heard on BBC Sessions, it is a fine, professional rendering, and one which no doubt would have excited any blues-loving member of the audience. Interestingly this would turn out to be one of the last times Hendrix would perform the song on stage, as he began to write material for Electric Ladyland. After another brief tune-up, Jimi begins “Foxy Lady” with some extended feedback during the intro. His performance here is about as uninhibited as it gets, and while seemingly quite restrained when compared to more nihilistic rockers such as Iggy Pop and Alice Cooper, for 1968 this was pretty theatrical.
It’s well known that Hendrix worked his guitars like no-one else, and so as a result we have lots of tuning up between songs. “Red House” is unique in that it features Noel Redding on electric guitar, instead of bass, just like its studio counterpart. In fact, this version remains quite faithful to the original recording from Are You Experienced?, and therefore far more compact when likened to other performances, where he would extend and improvise, often for over ten minutes. Not so “Driving South”, which is a lengthy instrumental and one that allows Hendrix to revisit his old R&B roots. The interplay between all three band members is superb (Mitch Mitchell is particularly inspired), with Jimi stretching out, doing things on the guitar Leo Fender himself perhaps never thought were possible. Jimi slows things down with a delicate and earnest reading of “The Wind Cries Mary.” If it wasn’t for one of his strings being a little out of tune, it would be right up there as one of the best versions he ever did. An energetic “Fire” is next, where Mitch damages the skin of his snare drum while Hendrix performs the solo. This is followed by an absolutely stunning rendition of “Little Wing”. The version he performed at The Royal Albert Hall just over a year later is no doubt the recording, but this rendition is the longest, where Hendrix winds up playing three solos at the end, instead of the usual two. I’ve always thought that the Axis: Bold As Love version was way too short, frustratingly so, and as beautiful as it is, here it sounds more complete and rewarding.
The last song performed on the night was “Purple Haze”, a tune which Hendrix wasn’t yet tired of and so could still put in an enthusiastic reading. This version is at a slightly more demure pace than others, although I’m sure the crowd loved it all the same.
What Paris 1968 successfully preserves is a young guitarist increasingly building on his abilities and taking risks few other guitarists seemed capable of at the time. And as imperfect as the performance might seem (constant tune-ups, PA problems), this is indeed an essential document for any Hendrix aficionado. Perhaps not so the tracks from Ottawa, Canada, I’m afraid to say. Hendrix’s performance is certainly spirited, but due to either the recording technology and/or deterioration of the tape, unless one is absolutely obsessed with hearing every single second of whatever exists in the vault, regardless of quality, it’s hardly the most enjoyable, although better than a poke in the eye as they say, and enough to ensure that every Hendrix fanatic can sleep a little easier at night knowing that they have it in their collection.