By Devon Wendell
Listening to this new four-CD box set of The Jimi Hendrix Experience live at The Winterland Ballroom in San Francisco between 10/10/68-10/12/68, it’s very apparent that Hendrix was growing faster than his audience. By October of ’68, Hendrix had just released his third LP, Electric Ladyland, and his live shows had become platforms for free form jams that combined avante-garde jazz themes with raw, funky blues instead of the cliché psychedelic rock of the times.
Most Hendrix followers still wanted the same old versions of “Foxy Lady,” “Purple Haze” and “Wild Thing,” expecting Jimi to do the same old stage antics witnessed over a year earlier at The Monterey Pop Festival. Though Hendrix does many of the same numbers he did at Monterey, such as Bob Dylan’s “Like A Rolling Stone,” Howlin’ Wolf’s “Killing Floor,” and “Hey Joe,” the arrangements here are completely different and played mostly in slower and more subdued tempos, giving Hendrix room to explore more as an instrumentalist.
Hendrix delves deep into the sonic realms of distortion and feedback on tracks like the instrumental “Tax Free,” as well as “Are You Experienced?,” and the earliest live recording of “The Star Spangled Banner” to date (almost a year earlier than the Woodstock version). But it’s Hendrix’s love and devotion to the blues that makes the Winterland shows so special — most notably Hendrix’s blues anthem “Red House,” which has been thought of as his greatest performance of this song by fans, musicians, and guitar publications since the original abbreviated Winterland CD release in 1987.
The original release only came with the “Red House” from 10/11/68, The box set comes with a second version from 10/12/68 and a third from the first night’s show. Although Clapton was known as the six string blues historian among rock audiences at the time, it’s clear from Hendrix’s phrasing during “Red House,” “Hear My Train A Comin’,” “Lover Man” and Howlin’ Wolf’s “Killing Floor” that Hendrix was more influenced by such avant-garde blues guitarists of the day as Albert Collins, Otis Rush, Hubert Sumlin, Buddy Guy, Guitar Slim, and Albert King, rather than more commonly heard blues influences like Muddy Waters, B.B. King, and Elmore James and John Lee Hooker.
T-Bone Walker’s influence is also a huge part of Hendrix’s blues approach here, when most blues-based guitar driven bands of the time thought of Walker’s playing as being “Less raw” and more “Uptown” than the grittiness of Chicago players.
The ever-present influence of modern jazz is also evident during these shows. The intro to “Hey Joe” on 10/12/68 is a fast, free form jam that is an obvious nod to Coltrane’s later work, reminiscent of Trane’s “Vigil.” Hendrix’s tribute to a disbanding Cream on “Sunshine Of Your Love” with special guest Jefferson Airplane bassist Jack Cassidy is far jazzier than Cream’s live explorations of their own classic, with Mitch Mitchell’s Elvin Jones inspired drumming pushing Hendrix and company to new heights.
Hendrix’s take on Swedish Duo Hanson and Carlson’s “Tax Free” brings to mind what artists like Weather Report and Frank Zappa would be doing over a decade later.
There is an innovative taste of everything on this set. Hendrix’s versions of “Fire” are flashes of psychedelic funk before those two words were even put together. A true highlight from the Winterland shows is the only known live recording of Hendrix’s “Manic Depression,” which showcases a brilliantly angry brew of harmonics and lightning fast trills not done by any other guitarist of that time. There’s even a pause before applause as if the audience is reacting in shock and awe when the song comes to a screeching halt.
Though it would have been more interesting to hear Hendrix perform some of his most recent tracks from his then latest studio release Electric Ladyland — aside from a somewhat lackluster Voodoo Child(Slight Return) — the long awaited release of the Winterland box set gives Hendrix lovers exacty what they want. In addition, it offers the listener a glimpse of where Hendrix was headed artistically with 35 performances as well as a rare interview held a month after these shows backstage at The Boston Gardens.
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