Jimi Hendrix was a curious mixture of instinctive genius and crippling perfectionism. The guitarist took two years to make three landmark studio LPs — Are You Experienced?, Axis: Bold as Love and Electric Ladyland, a blizzard of magic — then spent two more trying to complete a fourth, still unfinished at his death in September 1970. But his legacy also includes thirty years of bootlegs, a long shelf of archival releases, and now The Jimi Hendrix Experience, a four-CD windfall of stage and studio rarities, most previously unissued. And in all of this music, you hear marvelous details of Hendrix’s working life, his daily pursuit of electric salvation. The official masterpieces were his dreams come true; the fifty-six performances in this box, the Rolls Royce of posthumous Hendrix sets, tell us about the man inside the dreams.
For one thing, he was very funny. During his guitar break in a 1970 studio blast of “Lover Man,” Hendrix suddenly jets into “Flight of the Bumble Bee.” In a version of “Purple Haze,” recorded in May 1969 at one of his last shows with the original Experience — bassist Noel Redding and drummer Mitch Mitchell — Hendrix impishly misquotes the song’s signature lyric: ” ‘Scuse me while I kiss that guy.”
A child of the R&B-revue grind, Hendrix was also a disciplined showman. On the eve of two February ’69 dates at the Royal Albert Hall in London that were to be recorded and filmed, he took the Experience into the studio for a rigorous night’s rehearsal. In fact, the two tracks here from that session are hotter than the Albert Hall tapes — the Experience at their most jubilant and explosive. “Spanish Castle Magic” is a glorious blowout, wide open in ardor and attack. And the Experience turn the blues prayer “Hear My Train a Comin’ ” into a cleansing roar of redemption. Hendrix’s playing glows with righteous impatience; Mitchell rolls across his kit like a runaway iron horse.
Hendrix’s competing impulses — his restless spirit and almost lunatic passion for the minutiae of record making — run riot, and sometimes into each other, all over The Jimi Hendrix Experience. Early and alternate takes of “Hey Joe,” “Foxy Lady,” “Little Wing” and “If 6 Was 9” show Hendrix, and his vision, evolving in clarity and poise. You also hear weird detours and halfway turns, evidence of his unraveling momentum in 1969 and ’70: a radical rerecording of “Stone Free,” with florid guitar overdubs; studio work by Hendrix’s aborted funk-rock experiment, Band of Gypsys.
And because Hendrix was the kind of recording artist for whom the tape never stopped rolling, there are private moments which he no doubt expected to remain that way. A May ’67 snippet of “Burning of the Midnight Lamp” finds Hendrix in the throes of discovery, pounding on the harpsichord that would be the final arrangement’s masterstroke. “It’s Too Bad” is a confessional epic, a February ’69 jam written on the spot about the troubles of Hendrix’s brother Leon that also reveals much about Jimi’s own feelings of isolation and dislocation at the height of stardom.
In addition to its unreleased treasures, The Jimi Hendrix Experience restores to print crucial gems buried on long-deleted Seventies packages like Loose Ends and Hendrix in the West. But the real power of this box is not in its collector’s-item quotient. It is in the cumulative effect of its narrative, its vivid telling of a remarkable life in motion. Great art demands fierce labor, and the true lesson of this music is that Jimi Hendrix was, ultimately, a working man.