If Jimi Hendrix were as alive and vital as his music remains, he’d be 70 this year. The heights to which he would have taken his artistry can only be imagined, but there are clues throughout his legacy, like the expansive sonics in his visionary Axis: Bold As Love and Electric Ladyland albums, and in live performances like “Machine Gun” at the Fillmore East, on the historic Bandy of Gypsys disc, where he transforms rock-based improvisation into a tangible language.
Any opportunity to hear or watch Hendrix perform live is always inspiring, especially for electric guitarists. Even in practical terms. As he proves in the Isle of Wight concert film Message to Love and on the Live At Woburn CD, his hard-core experience as a performer on the chitlin circuit allowed him to overcome the adversity of technical issues without sapping an ounce of the power of his delivery, for example. And when the occasional bad note slipped out, he always had a quip — as well as a torrent of consistently staggering playing — at ready for the occasion.
Fortunately, Hendrix’s playing is showcased in his live 1970 concert at Berkeley. The Jimi Hendrix: Live At Berkeley CD, just released and the film of that show, Jimi Plays Berkeley, now on DVD, is witness to the man’s musical genius.
Jimi Plays Berkeley captures Hendrix on stage at the Community Theater in Berkeley, California, on Memorial Day 1970. This new and improved package adds a fantastic bonus, a second set recorded on the same night with a slew of different titles including “Purple Haze,” “Straight Ahead,” “Stone Free,” “Hey Joe” and “Foxey Lady.” The second set is an audio-only bonus on the DVD and it is mastered, like the DVD itself, in Dolby 5.1. It’s also available as an audio only release from Experience Hendrix, the legacy organization led by Jimi’s sister Janie.
The film starts, as in its original 1971 release, with scenes before the show — Hendrix and his small posse in a limo en route, footage from the streets of the liberal collegiate community — that visually capture the milieu of the times. The concert does the same aurally, thanks to Hendrix’s sheer ability to speak with his instrument. The newly restored and remastered film on Blue Ray shows Hendrix afire, spinning out dizzying licks in a ferocious jam on “I Don’t Live Today,” where he tosses his guitar behind his head and keeps chugging without any apparent loss in facility. And there’s a version of the “Star Spangled Banner” that features his whammy bar manipulation at its most playful. Like Ike Turner before him, Hendrix often pushed the device to its maximum, and his glee in making his guitar whinny is palpable.
Most important, there are newly discovered performances of “Machine Gun” and “Voodoo Chile (Slight Return)” that were not part of the original film. It’s obvious why. The new performance footage is grainy and appears to have been poorly shot, but scenes of protests and rioting that have been added to compensate lend a hair-raising highly effective visual component to the song’s message. Regardless of how Hendrix looks, the sound is great and he is obviously pouring his soul into the performance, standing stock still behind the microphone rather than working the stage as he does for the majority of the concert. He also improvises lyrics specifically addressing the Vietnam War. And his take on “Voodoo Chile (Slight Return)” is rabidly up-tempo, bringing out the R&B roots of the tune and pushing the groove into the kind of rave-ups he propelled during his stints with the Isley Brothers, Curtis Knight and a host of others while cutting his teeth in the chitlin circuit.
The 67-minute “Second Set” recording is all rock ‘n’ roll ferocity, a great performance that captures Hendrix loose and unleashed. Second sets are historically the spot where bands hit their stride, warmed up after the night’s opening volley. The group’s rendition of “Straight Ahead” is all blood and guts, and Hendrix’s solo on “Stone Free” transforms his guitar into a wild stampeding beast, tamed only by a whammy bar finale that segues into “Hey Joe.”
The revitalized Jimi Plays Berkeley has one more surprise: an interview with his live sound engineer Abe Jacobs. It’s packed with fascinating tidbits about Hendrix’s on-stage approach. Jacobs explains Hendrix’s goal was to create an experience for his listeners that was akin to him playing for them in his living room and that Jacobs never used more then eight microphone on stage with the band, who traveled with all their gear in a single 19-foot truck.