The record industry probably has no greater sin on its conscience than the artistic and commercial rape of Jimi Hendrix. Unofficial releases of old hack studio sessions with Curtis Knight and the Isley Brothers dogged him during his lifetime. Since his death in 1970, “greatest hits” reruns, concert and studio-outtake compilations and a virtual torrent of pre-Experience dross have flooded the marketplace. Precious few of them have shown even a fraction of the care and imagination Hendrix diligently applied to record making.
At first glance, The Jimi Hendrix Concerts seems a noble attempt to right a few of those wrongs. Unlike other live Hendrix albums, bootlegs excepted, this two-record set attempts to simulate a complete Hendrix concert performance with selections taken mostly from a 1968 stand at San Francisco’s Winterland with the original Experience. Yet for all the incendiary rage and manic daring with which Hendrix attacks his guitar on now-classic blasts like “Fire” and “Voodoo Chile (Slight Return),” this album is hardly “a collection of his most exciting performances,” which is how it’s billed on the back cover. For starters, producer Alan Douglas has put these tracks through a studio ringer that compresses the Stratocaster shriek that shook the world into a seductively muted sting. Where “Little Wing” — with its high cathedral-like grace and serenading melody — should sing, it merely shrugs, the dulled edge of Hendrix’ guitar aggravated by the moping pace of the Experience. And compare the slightly glazed guitar tone of the breathless opener, “Fire,” with the savage, unretouched bite of “Johnny B. Goode” on the now deleted Hendrix in the West.
More significant, The Jimi Hendrix Concerts finds Hendrix, a year after Monterey, already caught between his rock & roll muse and the hard place of stardom. His frustration with the “wild man of rock” image is evident in the rote recitation of his Monterey show-stopper, “Wild Thing.” He introduces a London 1969 take of “Stone Free” as a “blast from the past,” opening up the song in an extended solo that falls back on familiar licks and feedback grandstanding before dissolving into a blustery Mitch Mitchell drum break. There are moments when he breaks gloriously free. “I Don’t Live Today” explodes in metallic shards of guitar and feedback flames, Hendrix painting white-noise abstractions with a stupefying harmonic logic. “Are You Experienced” is rich in dissonant grandeur, an electrifying example of Hendrix’ orchestral manipulation of high volume and harmonic overtones. His inventive blues expansions get ample space in “Bleeding Heart,” and the soul at the heart of it all hits a locomotive peak in the passionate finale, “Hear My Train a-Comin’.”
On the whole, this is a marked improvement over previous “official” live issues, and occasionally it approaches his real genius. But the emasculating postproduction and sometimes confused performances are a distorted mirror of Jimi Hendrix’ true achievements. The Jimi Hendrix Concerts, for all its good intentions, is not the real experience.