DVD Review: Jimi Hendrix “Blue Wild Angel,” screened at the Grammy Museum

Jimi Hendrix

Blue Wild Angel  (Sony Legacy)

By Mike Finkelstein

Last Thursday the Grammy Museum and the Jimi Hendrix Estate screened a preview of the new DVD, Blue Wild Angel.   BWA is an expanded edition release of Jimi Hendrix’ last ever gig at the legendary Isle of Wight Festival, just a few short weeks before his untimely passing in the fall of 1970.    Director Murray Lerner, who – along with bassist Billy Cox — was on hand for the screening, filmed the entire event in August of 1970 and there was a comprehensive release of the festival’s events.  But Lerner had a lot of prime footage remaining in the can and, for anyone curious about Hendrix, or the many fans who have always wondered if there was more footage, this package is well worth checking out.

In 1970 the Isle of Wight was a resort area for Brits, and only accessible by boat.   Large rock festivals were a relatively new phenomenon at the time, with Monterrey Pop having happened just three years prior to this.   In those nascent years of big outdoor rock concerts, festivals tended to be tremendous events headlined by the biggest rock bands in the world.   Conditions were rough and stages were somewhat ramshackle.  Often they were little more than a platform on which to perch the gear and the musicians. The stage set up for Isle of Wight looked a bit like a living room rehearsal, albeit with huge amps.  The vibe was definitely casual.  During a tune, Jimi would talk to his road manager.   The drums were not even set on a riser, just flat on the stage like they might have been set up at a house party.  Fresh drumsticks came from a cardboard box, and there was a borrowed monitor on stage, perhaps from the Who (judging from the stencil text on its side).    Mics were taped together with duct tape.  Sound and lighting equipment was a far cry from what it has become today.

The performers could rise to or above the level of the enormity of these events …or be swallowed up by it.   At times in this show, Hendrix’ reformed Experience (Billy Cox replaced Noel Redding on bass and Mitch Mitchell remained on drums) transcend the conditions, their playing level rising into the rarefied air.  At other times, they really have to work to keep it together.  That we can recognize this in the film is simply magical and mesmerizing.  It’s one reason why we want a film like this to come out at all.

Isle of Wight was the largest crowd Jimi or anyone else had ever played to at 600,000 strong in 1970. Blue Wild Angel gives us a lot of cutting insight into the goings on before the show.  Behind the scenes shots reveal trouble setting up the stage, panic setting in over whether there will be a stage for Hendrix to perform on. There are ugly rickety metal fences being erected, to make sure people pay to get in.   We see disagreement over the alphabetical orders of the performances.   The bands were to be paid in cash and there were literally bags of money in the middle of the floor with strong-arming to get at the cash.    It seemed, too, that the locals really didn’t know what was coming to their cozy little world.   The aftermath shown towards the end of this film is impressive – a whole lotta debris.

Whether or not we even consider that the sound and images in BWA are over 40 years old, they are remarkably revealing.    At the screening, director Lerner mentioned that there were no lights on the audience.  There were however, nine camera crews, five focusing on Jimi.  Also, the DVD’s special features section allows viewers to choose different camera angles for some of the performances.

The photography is clearly a labor of love, trying and usually succeeding in capturing the vibe of the moment through the lens.  The crews caught many of the facial nuances, which were an attractive part of Jimi’s stage presence.   They pan down his leg and let us get a look at his psychedelic hippy threads. At the beginning of the show, we can see the band struggling a bit to settle into a groove. We even hear Jimi wonder aloud, “How does ‘God Save The Queen’ go?” just before going onstage and still opening with a very hip version of it.  There is priceless footage of Billy and Mitch in particular, communicating with their eyes and body language to fan the fire and keep the groove alive.   Thankfully, we consistently get to look into Jimi’s eyes as he leads and nurtures that same groove. Props go to Lerner and his crew for capturing these revealing glimpses of a true legend.  As this is the last filming of Hendrix, — he was dead less than a month later — it is all the more galvanizing.  We will always remember him in his prime as he was here.

The sound has been mixed impressively by Hendrix’ trusted collaborator, Eddie Kramer.   There is a welcome clarity in the mix which clears an insight into Hendrix’ sound that evening.  The show’s dynamics shine in the mix. The sound is mostly loud with some crackles in places (“Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band”), and even some radio interference during “Machine Gun.”   At other times the sound is so sparse it feels as though you are in the living room with the band.  Most of the time, however, the music spans from thunderously loud to simply quiet and we catch all the nuances.

At the time that the show was filmed, Hendrix had grown tired of being a pop star and the silly idolatry that comes with that status.  It probably wasn’t the greatest gig of his career or the best day of his life.  Jimi seemed alternately weary and then dialed into the moment and the filming brings these shifting dynamics into focus.  You can see it on his face and hear it in his sarcasm with the audience.  The older JHE numbers look and sound like he’s tired of playing them, wanting to move on.    On “Foxy Lady” he does several of his flash moves from the chitlin circuit in about 20 seconds.   Show them to the fools who want to see the shtick, get through it and move on.  The new material from Cry of Love , on the other hand, was inspired.  The lines of dialogue between Billy and Jimi on “Freedom,” “ Dolly Dagger” and “ In From the Storm” are especially vibrant and were the signature of his compelling new sound.

As the show unfolds it becomes quite obvious that Billy Cox is just the right bassist to support Jimi.   The two players clearly know each other’s styles well enough to trust the chemistry as they peel off counter lines that mesh seamlessly.  Commenting after the screening, Billy Cox said that this was one of the first few times they had tried the new material onstage.   He also made it clear that his job was to follow Jimi wherever it led musically, “like white on rice,” “like a rat on cheese,” and definitely into unplanned key changes.

During the extended jam numbers we can see the band working hard to drive their groove.   “Red House,” sounded great in a straight blues vein.   “Machine Gun” a fusion of blues, rock and free form approach, still sounds far ahead of its time, especially when set against the backdrop of the raging Vietnam War.   In this song Jimi mesmerizingly wrings so much emotion, clean and distorted, out of his axe that it is stirring to watch.   Perhaps due to the analog nature of his sound and certainly due to his artistic touch, he simply comes across as much more immediate than most who have followed him.  This is some expressive guitar playing for the ages.

For anyone even mildly curious about what is behind Hendrix’ enduring legend, this package is well worth checking out.   It actually is documentation of a milestone in the man’s life and an affirmation of just how mercurial a stage presence he was, both musically and charismatically.  And this version of the Jimi Hendrix Experience was perhaps his best backing band.  Blue Wild Angel finally gives his longtime fans the chance to see and hear some of their true high points.

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