South Saturn Delta (Sony Legacy)
By Brian Arsenault
In the fall of 1967, Cassidy and I walked to the old Armory across from campus to see Jimi Hendrix play an afternoon gig. We were early to get in line for great seats. We had been Experienced.
Hendrix in the afternoon. Strange. But no stranger than that he was performing at a crappy old Armory with the solitary claim to fame that Ali beat Sonny Liston there with an invisible punch a couple years before, when the fight was thrown out of just about everywhere. In a wonderful parallel, Hendrix had been thrown out of the Monkees tour. I still smile thinking of all those pre-teen girls and their Moms waiting for Davy Jones and then hearing the giant electrochord opening to “Foxy Lady.”
That chord was the invisible punch that went right through me sitting in the second row, right in front of Jimi’s amp. Really, right through me and still echoing down through all the decades. To this day I have seen many guitarists who can play like crazy; muscle the guitar or tease it, even hit supersonic speeds or master the old slow hand. But I’ve never seen any guitarist just meld into the instrument like Jimi, as if it was a part of him or he an extension of the instrument.
So I still get excited when something “new” by Jimi is released, even though I know it’s not really new and I have a fear of second class recordings dug up to make up for the fact that Buddy and Jimi and a lot of others are dead and can’t thrill us with new stuff any more.
Yet there can still be great moments in such recordings, from songs lost so long ago or never even released. Such an instant comes about the middle of South Saturn Delta when “The Stars that Play with Laughing Sam’s Dice” just delights with a British Invasion kind of beginning that moves all the way to an acid rock conclusion. The solo in the middle is Jimi at the height of his powers and that is no small matter.
The slightly altered “All Along the Watchtower” soars, of course, but you knew that. The disappointments are there too. When I saw “Little Wing” on the title list I was so pleased. At least three great versions of that song by three different artists are among my favorites of all time. What you get here is a mundane instrumental version which hardly sounds like “Little Wing.”
In fact, for my taste, there are too many instrumental songs on the CD — a reissue of the 1997 compilation with the same title. Not that Jimi can’t pull it off, but his greatness lies I think in that distinctive voice coming in over the top of some great riff and just blowing you away. The title track in fact is a “jazzy” instrumental which I sincerely hope wasn’t some half assed attempt to say, “Oh look, Jimi could play jazz too.” As if he needed that imprimatur to give him legitimacy. The horns are okay but who listens to Jimi for horns. For musicologists only.
“Power of Soul” is worse. It’s actually boring and that’s a hard thing to manage when Jimi plays. “Midnight” is a decent instrumental track, but again I ache for Jimi to cut in with a vocal like only he and maybe Clapton can match with their guitar work. Speaking of Clapton, I was struck in several places on this CD — as I often have been over the years — that Mitch Mitchell and Noel Redding could often keep up with Jimi. But let’s face it, he carried his rhythm section, unlike Cream where Ginger Baker and Jack Bruce could often lift Eric to new heights.
If you get a little discouraged during the early parts of the CD, hang in there. The final third is the best part. “Sweet Angel” is indeed sweet, soft, even lovely in the same spirit as “The Wind Cries Mary,” the guitar work clear and rippling, like water flowing in a mountain stream. “Bleeding Heart” is wonderful rock based on Jimi’s roots in the blues — you know what I mean. And “Pali Gap” is the best of the album’s instrumental tracks played with a restraint not so common in Jimi’s work.
In “Drifter’s Escape,” Jimi does his uniqe version of the plaintive quality of some Dylan’s best lyrics. Who would have thunk it?
And the album concludes with “Midnight Lightning,” just Jimi’s guitar and that gypsy voice. It was enough, but I wish there could have been more.