Jimi played guitar, jamming good with Billy and Buddy and the Experience – no, wait, that was Ziggy. But Hendrix was almost certainly a model for Bowie’s space crawler, an electric deity who sacrificed himself as he took it all too far. His music was haunted by death from the start – “Will I live tomorrow?” he asked on his first album – and he chased after it at a furious pace, recording more than 70 times in the year before his passing. ‘Posthumous’ entered the vocabulary of rock & roll just five months later, as tracks he was working on began appearing, and they really haven’t ever stopped. Studio tapes, soundboard recordings, radio broadcasts, hotel room sketches, more studio tapes with overdubs (and then still more with the overdubs removed), bootleg quality live shows – all rotating endlessly on what the Kinks once called the Moneygoround.
What charged Hendrix’s music was its continual opening of new possibilities; it’s the sound of an explorer seeking not to possess what he’s after, but make himself part of it. Discovery was at the core of his work, in the most literal sense: He composed through repetition and improvisation, working out new ideas, sounds and rhythm tricks in the moment. So although Both Sides of the Sky – the third volume in a vault clearing that began in 2010 with Valleys of Neptune (close to a must hear) and continued with 2013’s People, Hell and Angels (a little less close) – repeats songs and fragments found in more fully developed versions elsewhere, it still offers plenty of thrills, as, time and again, Hendrix pushes solos along the knife-edge that separates this world from another.
On a version of Muddy Waters’ “Mannish Boy” recast over a funk vamp, Hendrix sends Chuck Berry-style ringing guitar through a wah-wah echo chamber, then switches to a molten, unformed sound that hovers delicately above Billy Cox’s bass and Buddy Miles’ drums. “Hear My Train A Comin'” – the blues-power workout that Hendrix devised around images of American mobility, gospel redemption, doomed romance and mortality – thunders, rolls and tumbles with elemental force, with Hendrix rewriting the laws of gravity, space and time. “Georgia Blues” is after-hours lounge music full of slow-rolling organ, as Hendrix embellishes vocals from Lonnie Youngblood, a friend from his soul-shack days, with libidinous obligato.
The quest for previously unreleased treasures unearths some true fool’s gold, though: An early version of “Woodstock” has Hendrix on bass instead of guitar, backing up Stephen Stills. A rundown of Guitar Slim’s “The Things I Used to Do” showcases Johnny Winter’s slide guitar and not much else. “Cherokee Mist” finds Hendrix noodling with guitar feedback howls (more, please) and electric sitar (um … no) for seven minutes – you can tell it’s going nowhere when he starts playing around with the “Purple Haze” riff.
Consider the barrel fully scraped. But the rise of the streaming era in the eight years since the first volume of this series means that the best bits of Both Sides of the Sky are ripe for cherry picking. Maybe you’ll want these versions of “Lover Man” and “Stepping Stone,” maybe not. But check out the work-in-progress “Send My Love to Linda,” which jumps to life with a two-minute solo that finds Hendrix answering his own phrases as he hops from pedal to pedal, looking to top himself every time. He nearly gets there.