By Mike Finkelstein
Los Angeles, CA. Of all the guitar players to come along in the 20th century, none have been more influential than Jimi Hendrix. Forty-four years after his death, his presence is still felt vividly by anyone with ears open. On Friday night, the Experience Hendrix tour 2014 vintage rolled into the Greek Theatre to share the love and appreciation for Jimi’s music and style. This tour featured hot-shot guitar players from all over the stylistic map, but culling mostly from blues, and rock ‘n roll … between which there is often a very thin line. You could say that Jimi Hendrix set up camp on this line and expanded his style into a very inspired original realm.
On Friday we had people like Zakk Wylde (from Ozzy Ozbourne’s band), Rich Robinson of the Black Crows, Jonny Lang, and Kenny Wayne Shepherd — all of whom were barely out of the crib or not yet born when Hendrix checked out — paying homage to him. Eric Johnson on the other hand was 16 by the time Hendrix died and had the time to take him in, way in, while he was current. Buddy Guy was actually an elder contemporary of Hendrix’s. And on Friday Jimi’s old Army buddy and Band of Gypsies mate Billy Cox, who helped arrange the tour, played on several tunes, including “Red House,” “Message to Love” and “Them Changes.”
As a popular music artist, Jimi Hendrix brought the whole package to the table. He was legendarily influential in how electric guitars would sound and be played after him…and he played his Stratocaster left-handed and upside down! He also was an electrifying performer and an inspirational songwriter. The cherry atop it all was that Hendrix was an African American young man coming at the world, fusing Delta blues and rock ‘n’ roll, via swingin’ London, having blown away all the rock gods of the time away in their hometown. The world took notice. But these were turbulent times and copious drug use was absolutely the norm. By age 27, Jimi was a tragic casualty of the lifestyle, after only about 4 years in the limelight.
Yet, it appears that in many circles his legacy is still thriving. Then and now, he set the bar several dozen notches higher than it had been before, for anyone who was (or is) getting serious about playing rock guitar. If one can do justice to several of Hendrix’ tunes, then they just may be getting the real hang of the instrument.
There is one caveat about Hendrix’ music. It has seduced many guitar players into wanking out on their solos far too often, particularly on blues jams. Hendrix was such a great instrumentalist that he could pull off extended solos in a rock format when few others could. With his popularity and Eric Clapton’s concurrent years with Cream, many guitarists seized on stretching out and were nothing much more than boring.
When you have a night of people jamming Hendrix it’s a given that a whole lot of notes will be played for a long time. Generally speaking on Friday, only two guys went a little too long. They were Zakk Wylde (who looked like he’d clobber you like a cave man if you suggested as much) on “Manic Depression,” and Kenny Wayne Shepherd who did sound amazing as he went on and on over the soft and hard versions of “Voodoo Chile/Voodoo Child (Slight Return).” Wylde is a first string heavy metal dude. But, as deft a player as he is, his guitar style can get long winded and histrionic enough so as not to allow him to perhaps let it breathe the way blues-based music needs to. But he did add the elusive piano part to Eric Johnson’s version of “Are You Experienced?” that put it over into one of the top performances of the evening. Shepherd actually had an amazingly authentic tone to work with and did real justice to two of the litmus test tunes on the learning curve of rock guitar.
Friday’s show also did a fine job of spotlighting many of Hendrix’ most popular and most inspirational tunes. The song list was top shelf, with many of Jimi’s best deeper cuts and B-sides taking up the lion’s share of the program. “Stone Free,” “Manic Depression,” “Purple Haze” and “Little Wing” all made the list.
But so did a very soulful version, from Rich Robinson, of the bluesy but atypical “Up From the Skies,” Eric Johnson’s ripping version of “Ezy Rider,” Kenny Wayne Shepherd and singer Noah Hunt’s revved up version of “Gypsy Eyes,” a sparser, more poignant version of “House Burning Down,” from the lovely, guitar-slinging Ana Popovic, and a very tasty version of “Angel” from Doyle Bramhall II, which he has covered since he was in the Arc Angels.
It should be pointed out that the rhythm section was impeccable. Rock steady bassists Tony Franklin (The Firm, Whitesnake), who played fretless basses most of the night, and Scot Nelson were in fine form playing with the one and only Chris Layton. The laconic Layton was Stevie Ray Vaughn’s drummer for many memorable years and on Friday he made it look so easy to hold down the enormous bottom end of these songs – the calm in the middle of the storm.
Experience Hendrix featured one fine tune after another and it still leaves me incredulous that all of Jimi Hendrix’s music was produced in what amounts to about 4 short years. To say the least, he was taken away from the world far too early. Hendrix had some now legendary plans in the works to collaborate with Miles Davis and Emerson Lake and Palmer. What a shame it is that we never got to hear the sound of any of this.
But what he did put out remains stellar and it’s reaffirming to see that it still carries big weight with musical people. That’s why they come out to celebrate it at shows like this one.
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Photos of Doyle Bramhall II, Chris Layton, Ana Popovic, Eric Johnson and Scot Nelson by Mike Finkelstein.