Jimi Hendrix – Winterland (box set review)

Jimi Hendrix Experience – Winterland (Experience Hendrix / Legacy) CD review

Four CD’s of mostly-unheard live Hendrix — some of the best footage ever released

The popularity and influence that Jimi Hendrix continues to receive is both unparalleled and staggering.  Kids, whose parents weren’t old enough to know the guitarist’s music firsthand, are downloading his songs and wearing shirts with his iconic image.  Bands, both young and old, continue to site him as a major influence.  I attended three concerts this summer (Paul McCartney, ZZ Top, and Dave Mason) that all paid tribute to him by covering his songs.  There is also no shortage of live footage of Hendrix: Jimi Plays Monterey, Woodstock, Isle of Wight, Berkeley, Band of Gypsys. Yet, Winterland, a new four-CD live box set, not only stands up to his other concerts – it may be the best example of the legendary guitarist at his peak.

For one thing, out of all those mentioned above, only Monterey features his classic Experience lineup – and that footage is only about 40 minutes in length.  Winterland showcases the Experience with an unbelievable  four hours of live material.

So, you may ask – if this is so good, why is it just coming out now?  Well, the six concerts over three nights (two shows a night) at the San Francisco venue were all marred in technical problems.  Specifically – Hendrix kept blowing up amplifiers (not a surprise there), and breaking strings.  Add to that the fact that for some reason, his guitar would not stay in tune, and you have some pretty frustrating gigs.  As a result, these tapes were deemed unusable, and were shelved for decades.  Finally, the Hendrix estate decided to dust off these tapes, and, with the help of original Hendrix engineer Eddie Kramer, see what they had.  They decided to devote one disc to each night – thus giving them two shows to choose from for each CD.  That way, if Jimi blew his amp on “Purple Haze” on the early show, the chances are good that he didn’t on the late concert.  The end result is three discs of furious playing by Hendrix and band.

The first thing you notice is just how good this sounds – it’s sonically breathtaking – arguably the finest quality live performances that remain of Hendrix.  It certainly doesn’t sound like 1968.  Part of the accolades go to well-known studio engineer Wally Heider, who was behind the board as these concerts unfolded.  He was known for having the top of the line equipment and was way ahead of the curve when it came to capturing gigs.  The producers have also left in a lot of stage banter in-between songs.  Hendrix had a hell of a time keeping his guitars in tune, and you hear him retune many times.  Yet, it’s in these moments where we see his humor come out – playing a snippet of “Alleluia” before starting an incendiary instrumental version of “Sunshine of Your Love,” where the guitarist starts with the familiar opening riff, and then leaves the Cream version far, far behind.

Better than any other collection, these Winterland shows drew on songs from Hendrix’s entire career.  So, you get early singles like “Hey Joe” and “Purple Haze, and several songs that the guitarist rarely did live, like “Manic Depression,” and “Little Wing.” He also gives a preview of his third LP, Electric Ladyland, which would come out the following week, by playing “Voodoo Child (Slight Return).”  Hendrix also turns in some fine cover versions – the already-mentioned “Sunshine of Your Love,” but also a reworking of Dylan’s “Like a Rolling Stone,” where he sings only a portion of the lyrics, while taking the Troggs’ garage-stomper “Wild Thing” to its logical, raw extreme.

While there are songs that are repeated several times throughout the four discs, hearing all the different versions shows just how loose Hendrix was with some of his arrangements.  Take for instance, “Tax Free,” the long jam that opens discs one and two — the first version clocks in at almost 15 minutes and goes through several tempo changes – from frenetic to dirge-like, also featuring an impressive, crazed-out drum solo from Mitch Mitchell.  The disc two take is leaner, only 10 minutes in length, but Hendrix’s guitar work is more exploratory, and the track also features a bass solo from Noel Redding.   These recordings marked the two-year anniversary of the Experience – and, by now, they are a well-oiled, monstrous machine.  There are times when they come off as telepathic – there’s no way they rehearsed these songs in a certain way, yet each member somehow just instinctively knows just where to go.

Disc four of the set contains the “best of the rest” – even more material from the three nights that couldn’t fit on discs 1-3.  There’s a 15-minute take of the blues standard “Red House” where Jimi leaves the familiar melody behind then stretches on a long jam at the end.  The real find is an interview done with him a month later backstage at a gig at Boston Gardens.  He’s relaxed and very candid as he talks his influences and comparisons to the British hard rock bands of the day.  One of the most interesting topics is the unauthorized release of Hendrix playing with Curtis Knight (before he was in the Experience) and him having to issue an album on Capitol Records to fulfill an old contract (it ended up being the live “Band of Gypsys” album).

There are several points in the set where Hendrix apologizes for the mishaps and constant retuning.  Yet, once he and his band start playing – it’s other-worldly.  Winterland gives us a much-needed closer look at Hendrix with the Experience.  You may not throw away your other live albums, but you’ll come back to this one again and again.  –Tony Peters

One final note: For those not wanting to drop the extra $ for 4 CDs, they’ve issued a tight, one-CD sampler, also called Winterland, featuring highlights of the box.  The Cream and Dylan covers are worth the price all by themselves.