Experience Hendrix: The Best Of Jimi Hendrix
MCA Records, 1998
REVIEW BY: Jason Warburg
ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED: 05/24/1999
The world of the arts is littered with people who, metaphorically speaking, color inside the lines.
Most gifted artists begin by learning from those who went before them - observing styles, techniques, basic avenues of expression. Most then settle into a niche - maybe an interesting or quirky one that skirts the edges of the current scene, but for the most part, a niche that still lies within the boundaries of their own learning and experience. They find the lines they're most comfortable with, and they color inside them.
What the great, truly landmark artistic figures do is to say "Those lines are good, those lines are valuable, and I respect them -- but now I'm drawing my own."
For four incredible and all-too-quickly-gone years, Jimi Hendrix drew lines that changed the world of popular music forever.
A true rock and roll devotee probably needs all three of the studio albums Hendrix completed during his lifetime; each is a remarkable accomplishment that shattered untold barriers in its day. But for the Hendrix beginner (which I'm not, but I'm hardly an expert), Experience Hendrix: The Best of Jimi Hendrix is a great place to start.
Hendrix's music is, at its core, blues music. In the early '60s he had served his apprenticeship as a sideman for rhythm and blues acts that included Little Richard and the Isley Brothers. He could draw inside those lines like a master, but his prowess with a guitar was so far beyond what was asked of him that neither he nor the acts he worked with were comfortable with his role.
When Animals bassist and fledgling producer Chas Chandler came across Hendrix, he was a barely-known solo club artist blowing away small crowds in New York with his virtuoso playing. Distortion, feedback, bizarre amp settings, behind-the-back playing, lightning runs on the fretboard, astonishing shifts in tempo and mood -- all were part of his mainly self-taught repertoire before he ever recorded a song of his own.
Moving to London in 1966 at Chandler's behest, Hendrix recorded the first of his three studio albums, 1967's Are You Experienced? Seven cuts from that astonishing debut are featured on this 20-track compilation, seven cuts that grabbed the music world by the lapels and shook it until it was dizzy.
The jagged, angular hook that kicks off "Purple Haze" was like nothing ever heard before in popular music - the banshee wail of an incredibly potent new voice being born. It and its companion "Manic Depression" are arguably the first heavy metal songs in music history, all pounding backbeat under grinding guitar pyrotechnics that would turn Jimmy Page, Tony Iommi and a thousand others on to the bone-shaking power of the fully amped, thoroughly unleashed electric guitar. (Even one of the chief themes of heavy metal is established here -- how far is it, really, from "Manic Depression" to a "Communication Breakdown" that leaves you "Paranoid"?)
Still, "Hey Joe" was the first single, and here Hendrix's blues roots are on wide display. His gruff, sometimes shaky vocals aren't yet a match at this point for the sensitivity and fire of his playing, but the total effect remains remarkable. The same goes for "The Wind Cries Mary," another of the gentler, bluesy numbers that helped Hendrix break out as a singles artist. They came out of a recognizable genre, yet made it over with panache.
The songs that propel the first part of this disc, though -- and the ones I personally could listen to for days on end -- are the pulsating Chuck Berry-on-acid numbers "Fire" and "Stone Free." The combination of a driving backbeat and some of Hendrix's most aggressively rhythmic playing and singing is stunningly powerful. These thunderously amped soul grooves would ultimately offer inspiration to artists as diverse as Led Zeppelin and Parliament-Funkadelic, Stevie Ray Vaughan and Frank Zappa. They were the template for a new vision of music that erased all boundaries between blues, soul, pop and rock, and threw open the doors of invention for all those who followed.
Highlights from Hendrix's other two complete studio albums are also featured here, four tracks from Axis: Bold As Love (1967) and three from Electric Ladyland (1968). Both albums saw Hendrix's musical palette expanding still further, bringing exceptionally creative arrangements and experimentation of all sorts into the picture.
Take for example "Crosstown Traffic," one of Hendrix's deceptively simple compositions that's actually dense with inventive touches when you break it down -- clever lyrics, call-and-answer vocals (featuring guest Dave Mason of Traffic fame), a stuttering, dynamic beat, and a guitar line that he doubles on, yes, a kazoo. And it works. Other memorable tracks include the terrific blues ballad "Little Wing," the uncharacteristically playful "Foxey Lady," and the delirious psychedelic jazz-funk jam "If 6 Was 9."
Among Hendrix's crowning achievements, though, has to be his adaptation of Bob Dylan's gritty, soulful "All Along the Watchtower" into a hurricane of churning acoustic rhythm guitar (Mason again) and simply astounding electric soloing. To admire a seminal artist is one thing, to cover his work and top him at it is testament to the reach of Hendrix's talent.
Be prepared to collect your jaw off the floor a few more times before your 73 minutes are up, though, because this 20-track collection never lets up. Near the 3/4 mark, just as you begin to fear the highlights of Hendrix's all-too-brief catalogue may be about to peter out, a fresh burst of energy kicks in, beginning with the smoldering "Voodoo Chile (Slight Return)." Oft-cited by those who would know as the electric guitarist's ultimate challenge, the solos Hendrix shreds here are so consistently unpredictable and staggeringly complex as to defy description.
The next four cuts comprise the heart of the album Hendrix was working on at the time of his death, to have been titled First Rays Of The New Rising Sun, and they belong right here with his best work.
"Freedom" is a driving R&B number that puts the rhythm section in a killer groove even as the lyrics take their inspiration from both 1970 socio-political currents and traditional African-American spirituals. "Night Bird Flying," by contrast, has an almost country-rock feel to it, as if Hendrix had invited the Gram Parsons-era Byrds to sit in. Both feature more exceptional soloing. Meanwhile, the striking ballad "Angel" is awash in the dreamy tones created by another of Hendrix's sonic experiments -- amping his guitar through a Leslie organ speaker.
The set closes, appropriately enough, at Woodstock, with Hendrix's immortal kamikaze assault on "The Star Spangled Banner." While this wasn't his finest moment artistically, the out-of-control passion he invests in this rendition helped to seal his legend, and thus it belongs here beyond a doubt.
A review of this disc would not be complete without mentioning the excellent packaging and liner notes. Every song is fully annotated with just the right amount of background on its composition and recording, and the photos and design are top-notch.
All in all, this is a package in every way worthy of the artist it celebrates, an artist whose vision exceeded everything he saw around him, and who dared to make his vision real -- to draw his own lines.