The BBC Sessions

During one of several spoken interludes on the two-disc BBC Sessions, Jimi Hendrix interrupts the radio-interview happy talk to wonder whether anyone is listening. "Be a shame for all that music to go to waste," he says.

It seems incomprehensible now, but at the time — late 1967 — the waste of all that music on an unsuspecting public was a distinct possibility. Hendrix's debut with the Experience had just been released, and he could not yet count on an audience. Most everybody in rock was strumming electric guitars in an orderly, foursquare fashion, and here he was, this fire-breathing dragon, insisting on music as a startling, physical thing. His chords had bone-rattling presence; his lead lines felt so alive they might have been powered by a purer kind of electricity.

These characteristics make BBC Sessions more than another set of footnotes and odd-lot catalog cash-ins: It's damned exciting to hear Hendrix playing so passionately in 1967, before the world officially cared. All of the essential trademarks — the bold-as-life melodies, the roaring backbeats informed by the blues — are present on these two discs, most of them recorded for several BBC radio programs. His improvisational mastery is developing, as well: There are three versions of "Hey Joe" and also three of the fluid instrumental "Driving South," and each finds the trio tweaking tempos and shifting its tactics.

Tucked between standbys like "Foxy Lady" and "Fire" are some revealing surprises: The Beatles' "Day Tripper" gets a swift kick; Bob Dylan's "Can You Please Crawl Out Your Window" becomes a desperate plea; "I Was Made to Love Her," which features Stevie Wonder on drums, approaches soulrevue intensity; and on Cream's "Sunshine of Your Love," recorded for a 1969 BBC-TV special, Hendrix's torrid solo makes the Clapton original seem understated by comparison.

An excellent — though sonically flawed — companion piece is the authorized bootleg Live at the Oakland Coliseum, recorded in mono by a fan in 1969. Hearing it after the BBC collection is like reading a novel after scanning its outline: All the hints of greatness are embedded in those short broadcast takes, and by the time the Experience had done a few years of touring, they had become as telepathic as the Miles Davis groups of the period. On the winding eighteen-minute "Voodoo Chile (Slight Return)" and other tracks, the trio alternates between gnashing fits of interplay and trippy extended solos. Having grown into the music, Hendrix and his cohorts set out to exhaust its possibilities every night. Whether they succeeded is irrelevant; what mattered most was the intensity of the pursuit.