The Jimi Hendrix Experience: Live at the Oakland Coliseum has the distinction of being the first ‘official bootleg’ issued by Experience Hendrix, way back in 1998, in the hope of satisfying many long time fan(atic)s whose insatiable hunger for Hendrix product the record industry is well aware of and has always been happy to exploit. But just so you know what you’re purchasing, this album comes with a disclaimer: “Warning! This amateur, monophonic recording does not represent the usual stereo fidelity of live concert recordings.” If only bootleggers were that honest.
This two disc compilation was mastered from tapes made by Ken Koga, on the night of 27th April, 1969, on his Sony portable reel-to-reel deck (imagine trying to get one of those things past security nowadays). However unlike most amateur recordings of the era, this one is pretty good. Eddie Kramer and George Marino both did an outstanding job in cleaning up the tape, and while it certainly isn’t the finest sounding Hendrix live album around, what it does offer the listener is the sense of actually being in the audience, standing shoulder to shoulder among those in attendance.
After a brief introduction by Hendrix, The Experience opens the show with a fierce and enthusiastic “Fire”, where at the end bassist Noel Redding cheekily announces “If any young ladies would like to become mothers, just come around the back afterwards. That’s why we’re thin you see”. Nice one. All I can say it’s a good thing Twitter didn’t exist in those days. Next the band launch into an ominous “Hey Joe”, during which Jimi intersperses a few anti-Vietnam War statements throughout the verses. “Spanish Castle Magic” is arguably one of the wildest renditions he ever played, stretching his abilities far more than usual. “Hear My Train A’ Comin’” is slower but no less intense; however “Sunshine of Your Love”, a staple of the JHE repertoire throughout that year, is loose and explorative, taking the song to places Cream could never have even imagined. A 13 minute “Red House” closes out side one, and is every bit as impressive as any version committed to tape, to the extent that I prefer this concert to the one performed the previous day at the L.A. Forum, which itself was professionally recorded and released as part of the Lifelines box set.
Side two begins with what has to be one of the most unique and inventive renditions of “Foxy Lady” I can remember. Jimi pulls and stretches at the tune, transforming it into an extended jam. “Star Spangled Banner” is brutal, though somehow beautiful in its own strangely abstract way. Jimi really gets the crowd going on a strong and muscular “Purple Haze”, before finishing the gig with a whopping 18 minute “Voodoo Chile (Slight Return)”. Redding switches to rhythm guitar and Jack Casady (from the Jefferson Airplane) adopts bass duties. Anyone in the audience who had only heard the Electric Ladyland recording must have been truly impressed as Jimi and the band broaden the song out and improvise like there’s no tomorrow. Yes it’s all extremely raw and messy, yet somehow Jimi’s genius manages to shine through on this epic workout. And on a humorous note Hendrix somehow mistakes Casady for Jack Bruce at the end of the performance.
That Koga had been sitting on the tape for so long, without eventually erasing it or tossing it in the garbage is commendable to say the least. As stated earlier, the quality is far from perfect, but about as good as any fan is going to get in terms of audience recordings, of which there seems to be no shortage of out there as it turns out in the collectors world. And unlike most bootlegs, it comes with a 12 page booklet, full of informative liner notes by the ever knowledgeable John McDermott including colour photos taken at the gig itself, not to mention a picture of Koga’s very own tape box, adding a personal touch to the package overall.
Live at the Oakland Coliseum is not just a musical experience, but a historical snapshot into a place and time which no longer exists, except of course in the memories of those who were lucky enough to witness it for themselves. Two months later the original Experience would break up, with an unhappy Noel Redding having decided to finally split due to Hendrix wanting to enlarge the group and expand his horizons (Jimi had already been jamming with Billy Cox, Redding’s eventual replacement). However on this night, the magic was definitely there. And fortunately a young fan by the name of Ken Koga was able to preserve it, not just for himself, but for future generations.