The Atlanta International Pop Festival took place in the town of Byron, Georgia, more than 90 miles from the city of Atlanta itself. The organisers had made plans for an estimated 100,000 people over the 4th July long weekend. But when the festival began on the 3rd, the number of music fans who turned up was double that figure, and steadily growing by the hour. Some of the first day’s acts included B.B. King, Procol Harum, Mountain (who had performed at the Woodstock festival the previous year), and an up and coming local group known as The Allman Brothers Band. The following day saw audience numbers swell to as many as 400,000, forcing the promoters to finally declare Atlanta a free festival (sound familiar?).
Across the festival’s three days Atlanta was experiencing a severe heat wave, something which took its toll on the many thousands who had gathered in front of the stage. And so it was at around midnight that Jimi Hendrix would casually walk out and play to the largest crowd of his entire (albeit brief) career. But first he starts off by announcing his new trio, which he had christened The Cry of Love band: “Like to introduce the new member to the group, it’s Billy Cox on bass and Mitch Mitchell on drums. And yours truly on public saxophone.” Hendrix then manages to raise the mercury level even higher by opening his set with a searing and feverish “Fire”. Mitch and Billy are in perfect sync, while our man on “public saxophone” lets it rip with a guitar solo that is not only out of this world, but any other for that matter. On next track “Lover Man” Jimi steps on the Univibe pedal to unleash a flurry of alien vibes through his guitar while he plays the solo. Without a moment to breathe he launches into an extended “Spanish Castle Magic”, with chords hot enough to melt the polar ice caps.
Hendrix drops the Celsius by a few degrees on “Red House”, a blues composition somewhere between the Mississippi Delta and outer space. Mitch plays like a demon on the drum kit, while Billy anchors things down in solid and understated style.
“Room Full of Mirrors” was a song Hendrix had virtually completed for his next album, and obviously he thought he’d give it a go here. Compared to the studio version, with its multiple guitar overdubs and polished production, what we have at Atlanta is a Univibe dominated R&B number on peptides. We go back to the blues with “Hear My Train”, which has Hendrix’s guitar roll down the summit like an avalanche with the force of a hundred suns, blowing away everything in its path. Hendrix performs an energetic “Message to Love”, before kicking off his classic interpretation of and rarely performed “All Along the Watchtower”, which must have really got the crowd going. He fluffs it a bit here and there, but we can forgive him considering how complex the original studio version is, with all its multi-overdubs and complex arrangements.
“Freedom” was another song Hendrix had intended for his next album, and while not as tight as the studio version, his take on this night is pretty close, at least in terms of capturing the spirit of the composition. Next he attempts to melt the amps with a funk-metal stab at “Foxy Lady”, followed by “Purple Haze”, another crowd pleaser if there was ever one. And he performs it with gusto.
After a short Flamenco intro, Hendrix bursts into “Hey Joe”, a song which by 1970 he must have been sick to death with, having performed it a thousand times, but surprisingly not in this instance, because his guitar solo is truly inspired, whether intentional or not, reshaping space and time in the process (and no, one doesn’t haven’t to be on drugs to notice that). It’s at moments such as this I’m sure that neuroscientists must wonder about the human brain, and what separates some minds from others.
Hendrix gives the spectators a sonic blast with the schizophrenic assault of “Voodoo Chile (Slight Return)”, which far surpasses what we heard on Electric Ladyland. Hendrix keeps the momentum going with what is the finest version of “Stone Free” he ever performed. Jimi’s solo is tight but free-form, pulling pyrotechnics out of his strings no other guitarist at the time could have imagined were even possible. He cleverly segues into a frenetic display of heavy-metal histrionics via “The Star Spangled Banner”, while fireworks lit up the night sky behind him. Talk about timing!
The album ends with the vigorous “Straight Ahead”, another tune Hendrix had slated for his next album, an LP he would sadly never live to complete.
Although the majority of this concert has been released before, the mix by Eddie Kramer makes these performances shine and seem fresh and brand new. Not an easy feat when it comes to music that was recorded more than forty years ago. Hendrix would go on to play at another major festival in August, at The Isle of Wight, however Atlanta is superior in every way. Fanatics may point out that this is not the complete concert, considering the omission of “Hey Baby”, but anyone who has heard it will know that Jimi’s guitar became so out of tune that not even he could continue with it, abandoning the song very quickly after.
What those who were in attendance witnessed that night was an artist in transition; a musician on the brink between his past and his future. Tragically he never got that chance to explore whatever new horizons he might have ultimately claimed. But just in the recordings of Robert Johnson, we should be thankful for what we have and what remains.