Valleys of Neptune (Experience Hendrix/Legacy)
By Don Heckman
It’s hard to believe it’s been more than forty years since Jimi Hendrix brought the Woodstock Music and Art Fair to a stunning climax with his now legendary solo guitar version of “The Star Spangled Banner.” For the sturdy hold outs, the minority of the 400,000+ crowd that stayed until the bitter end, it was an extraordinary, even a definitive musical experience.
Hendrix was already well-recognized at that time, especially after his breakout appearance at the Monterey Pop Festival in 1967, as one of the most gifted and innovative artists of the decade. And he underscored that reputation with a performance that promised much more. As it turned out, there wasn’t much time left to deliver it, despite the ground-breaking creative plans he had in the works. A little over a year later Hendrix, only 27, was dead.
Fortunately, his far too brief career was filled with a continuing collection of recording sessions, often documenting his evolving interpretations of individual songs. Valleys of Neptune, which will be available on Tuesday, March 9, is the first in a series of albums scheduled for release by Legacy Recordings, Experience Hendrix and the Jimi Hendrix Catalog Project. In addition to Valleys of Neptune, which consists of 12 previously unreleased (in these versions) Hendrix tracks, Legacy will issue, also on March 9, new deluxe CD-DVD and vinyl LP editions of Are You Experienced?, Axis: Bold As Love, Electric Ladyland and First Rays of the New Rising Sun.
The tracks on Valleys of Neptune – some reworkings of familiar Hendrix songs, some relatively unfamiliar — trace to sessions taking place for the most part in the months before Woodstock. Nine of the twelve selections feature the original Jimi Hendrix Experience line-up of Hendrix, bassist Noel Redding and drummer Mitch Mitchell (with the addition of percussionist Rocki Dzidzornu on a pair of tracks}. The last studio recording by that group – “Ships Passing Through the Night” – took place in mid-April, 1969, the culmination of the growing differences between Hendrix and Redding.
In the three remaining tunes – “Stone Free” (a familiar Hendrix classic, first recorded in 1966), “Valleys of Neptune” and “Bleeding Heart” – Redding is replaced by Hendrix’s long time friend and musical associate, bassist Billy Cox. The first two are actually assemblages of takes from several different sessions. Elmore James’ “Bleeding Heart” is reportedly the best of several complete takes from April, 1969, with Hendrix’s guitar in powerful blues mode, and the interaction with Cox and Mitchell steaming with rhythmic energy.
Among the highlights in the remaining tracks: a searing romp through “Hear My Train A Comin’,” here heard in the original live studio recording, not the posthumous overdubbed version released on the (now deleted) Midnight Lightning; an instrumental take on Cream’s “Sunshine of Your Love”; “Lover Man” (inspired by B.B. King’s “Rock Me Baby”); and the dynamic “Red House.”
As with so much of Hendrix’s catalog of recordings, virtually every track has an often complicated history. And album annotator John McDermott has done a yeoman job of providing chapter and verse on the evolution of each of the songs.
But history aside, what really matters here is the music, which is extraordinary — regardless of the circumstances surrounding its fashioning – underscoring Hendrix’s role as the major, transitional figure linking traditional blues with the waves of new musical ideas surfacing in the ‘60s. For this listener, who was lucky enough to hear Hendrix up close and live, every note is a memorable gem.