For Jimi Hendrix fanatics, the selling point of this four-disc set is a full CD of songs on which the guitarist doesn't sing lead and barely solos. Instead, he plays sideman to Little Richard, Don Covay and others on 15 R&B smokers. The tracks offer glimpses of a prodigy straining at the bit: The hot-shit solo on the Isley Brothers' 1964 "Testify," all of 10 seconds long, is like an early Marlon Brando screen test, coiled drama springing to life; the reverb-soaked, Curtis Mayfield-style licks on the Icemen's sublime 1966 "(My Girl) She's a Fox" offer a taste of the exploded-soul magic Hendrix cooked up later on "Castles Made of Sand."
The remaining three CDs parse Hendrix's subsequent career chronologically but strictly through alternate takes, demos and live tracks, drawn from the seemingly bottomless vault of recordings that shadow the three studio LPs and one live set released during his lifetime. The material splits the difference between sheer greatness (a gorgeously psychedelic instrumental take of "Are You Experienced?") and novelties like a ragged but deep cover of the Bob Dylan/Band classic "Tears of Rage," the highlight of six intimate tracks recorded in a hotel room in 1968 with singer/harmonica player Paul Caruso. There's also a wonderful, illuminating new DVD documentary narrated in Hendrix's own words — drawn from letters and interviews — by kindred spirit Bootsy Collins (the bit about eating a picnic lunch while watching race riots in Nashville, where Hendrix got his career started, is grimly hilarious). To be sure, this box is for the fans. But even when the tracks don't shed new light, they still burn as bright as the sun.