What’s to like?
An informal guide to Jimi Hendrix’s live albums, from the perspective of a newcomer just discovering them. (Each album listed includes a hyperlink to details of song lists and sources.)
The low down
Jimi Hendrix, live performance – four words which are indelibly linked when you gaze across the impressive catalogue of live albums released after his passing. He may have grown tired of the endless touring, but the tapes kept a rollin’, and the sheer number of official live albums now available can seem daunting to the newcomer.
As one of those newcomers, I had previously been content to start with the studio material he recorded, and there’s no shortage of that either. (If you’re looking for an alternative introduction to Hendrix’s music beyond the standard compilations, then you might want to try out this box set reviewed here.)
However, the “burning desire” to explore every facet of this musician eventually led me to his live albums, and as I worked my way through them, I realised that on stage he was a different animal. Never sticking to the songs’ original arrangements, he was always keen to get a jamming scene going, and often improvised and extended each song way beyond the confines imposed in the studio when his label was demanding hits.
And that’s the exciting thing about Hendrix live, each show feels like new territory, unexplored and on the edge, where a song might go off in any direction he chooses. His fellow band members had to be on the top of their game to keep up with Hendrix’s whimsy, and when you really dig into some of the extended live versions, you realise how gifted Mitch Mitchell (drums), Noel Redding (bass guitar), Billy Cox (bass guitar) and Buddy Miles (drums) were.
Not only do they hold down the basic parts of each song to allow Hendrix the freedom to improvise over them, but they also find their own spaces within the songs to do their own thing too. And yet it never feels like three musicians pulling in three different directions – they’re all on the same telepathic wavelength, knowing instinctively how long to stretch out a song or when to cut and run because an idea isn’t working out.
Add to that the fact that Hendrix rarely played the same set-list two nights in a row, and you can see why audiences flocked to his gigs. Back then, it was customary for the band to perform an early show and a later show on the same day, usually with two different sets of songs, and if they played a residency over several days, and you had the tickets, you were treated to an amazing variety of songs. Even more impressive, when you think that on those early tours the band only had two albums to pool songs from, so they would also throw in works in progress or electrifying cover versions of other artists’ songs. (The Beatles had barely released their Sgt Pepper album, and within days, Hendrix was serenading them onstage with his own version of the title track, as a measure of respect for them.)
So, where should the newcomer begin? Well, you could try what I call “the sampler albums” – albums which are made up of selected tracks taken from several performances and tours. Not quite the full concert experience, but a worthwhile introduction to Hendrix’s sound onstage.
Perhaps the most widely available of these is Hendrix In The West, which has been expanded to a full cd’s worth of material, from its original vinyl release in 1971. At the time, some of the chosen tracks were considered relatively rare, but have since resurfaced on complete shows restored by the Experience Hendrix team.
Another very popular sampler is The Jimi Hendrix Concerts, released in the early 80s, with some outstanding versions and excellent sound quality – unfortunately this one’s a little harder to track down, and my previously owned copy had to be binned because it was a poor pressing. A third option would be to track down the double cd compilation Voodoo Child, as the second disc is made up of excellent live recordings, again sourced from different shows.
But what if, like me, you want to go deeper? Then the first choice should probably be Live At Monterey from 1967.
This was the original Experience’s first gig on US soil and they had everything to play for to make an impression. Needless to say, they went down a storm, with a tight forty minute set, focussed and fiery (literally, as Hendrix set fire to his guitar at the show’s climax.) The audio is a little bit raw around the edges, but you get songs not included in later live albums, and Monterey is an essential part of the Hendrix legacy.
As is the Winterland collection, recorded over six performances in San Francisco the following year. By now the trio had really evolved into something special, able to play off each other’s strengths and really stretch the possibilities of each song. Hendrix had also grown in confidence as a front man engaging with the audience between songs, with his relaxed banter and his ability to handle the rowdier elements in the audience. That confidence also ebbs into the set-lists, with the ballsy move of opening with an unfamiliar fifteen minute version of Tax Free, a song not present on the studio albums at that point.
The Winterland set is spread across four cds, with the first three representing interpretations of complete shows, and the fourth cd including alternative takes and a lengthy interview. And if you ever wondered what the Experience might have sounded like if they’d added a keyboard player, then check out disc 2 which includes Herbie Rich playing organs on several of the songs!
There is also a single disc edition which includes highlights selected from these performances, which I found helpful as an introduction before deciding to buy the full set.
Equally seminal is the Band Of Gypsys album, recorded in 1969/70, when Hendrix recruited Miles and Cox to form a new band and explore a more soul-influenced sound. The songs, all new at the time, were collated from four performances at the Fillmore East (NYC), and represent the best versions, at least from my point of view, having heard all four complete shows. While this album is in essence also a sampler, it’s a fine live album in its own right, and the audio quality is excellent.
For those of you wanting a complete show, the album Machine Gun offers up the entire first performance, and provides a fascinating alternative perspective to the Band of Gypsys release which uses performances from the third and fourth shows. However, if you have the cash, the time and the desire to dig even deeper, then I’d recommend the box set Songs For Groovy Children, which contains all four shows, and offers an opportunity to compare and contrast each set. The audio mix on these cds differs from the audio on the original Band Of Gypsys album, with a slight drop in volume and a different placing of the instruments in the mix, which gives the sound a more authentic live feel.
So far, each of these shows has been comfortably accommodated within the limits of an 80 minute single cd, but when we come to the larger outdoor festivals, the live sets become longer, and have to be pressed over two cds. Case in point, the Live at Woodstock show. This is probably the show that Hendrix is most associated with, thanks to the movie, and over the years it’s had a bad rap as one of Hendrix’s poorest performances, as he struggled to find a new direction and expanded the band to include additional percussion and guitar. But if you’re willing to accept this show as a transitional moment, there’s actually a lot to like, especially if you’re already into Hendrix’s free-form approach to exploring where he can take a song in that exact point in time. It’s also a showcase for drummer Mitchell, who has the unenviable task of trying to hold the whole thing together. It’s not Hendrix’s finest show, as it does ramble in places, but it’s not an embarrassment either, and is worth checking out.
Perhaps a better option is Freedom: Atlanta Pop Festival where the band are back to a trio and things are more focussed. The set-list has a nice mix of the old and the new, and for the most part the songs are kept relatively short, allowing the band to pack in an impressive sixteen numbers into eighty minutes. You get a rare outing for Room Full Of Mirrors, and the version of Red House is particularly good, with a beautiful solo from Hendrix that winds its way through the song and allows the listener to savour every note. The audio is excellent, to the point where you can hear the guitar veering out of tune on a couple of occasions, but Hendrix swiftly pulls it all together. It always amazes me how he was able to do this mid-performance, relying only on instinct, given that he didn’t have the tuning technology that is available today.
I recently wrote a more in-depth review of Live In Maui, which you can find here, and while I enjoyed it at the time, with the benefit of an expanded experience of Hendrix’s live albums, by comparison Maui comes up a little bit short, mainly down to the muffled vocals and lack of atmosphere from a substantially smaller audience. One for investigating once you’ve heard what the other albums.
The Isle of Wight album is another performance which some feel is below par for Hendrix, and he certainly had a few setbacks that night, not least interference in his sound. But it still packs a hefty punch, and at almost two hours, you get your moneys’ worth over eighteen songs. I was lucky enough to find a used copy of the double-disc edition which covers the whole set, but it seems that only an edited single disc version is the one currently being stocked by record stores.
Listening to the complete show can be a long haul in places, as Hendrix is not as focussed as on earlier shows; one example being a twenty two minute version of Machine Gun, which lacks the more dramatic impact of the shorter original version on Band of Gypsys. The radio interference that seeps into the band’s sound can be irritating at times, although it does add to the live vibe, and even if Hendrix’s banter with the audience is perfunctory, their roars of approval get each song over the finishing line. Again, this set is of historical value, rather than one of the best performances, but it also represents the last officially recorded gig Hendrix performed before his passing.
It would be remiss of me not to the mention a couple of other albums that I’ve come across, namely Miami Pop Festival from 1968, which again is worth checking out once you’ve heard everything else. It’s a succinct set-list, played well, but feels a little lightweight compared to other albums. And then there are the radio broadcasts. Technically, The BBC Sessions are more live-in-the-studio rather than in concert, but they offer a fascinating insight into the early material as works in progress, and come highly recommended.
Live in Sweden 1969, on the other hand includes two concert sets but the sound quality is variable as the bass tends to drown out the guitar and drums in places. It’s not a bad recording per se, but I’d guide you towards the other albums listed above, as their audio mastering has been the carefully overseen by Eddie Kramer. Kramer was Hendrix’s sound engineer back in the day, and the one guy Hendrix trusted in the studio, and he has continued to this day to oversee every new official release sanctioned by the Experience Hendrix team. If Kramer has been involved, then what you’re hearing is the best audio mix possible of these live tapes.
That just leaves my own personal choice of live album, and for that I’d point you towards Live at Berkeley from 1970. As the political battles were raging outside the venue, inside Jimi was tearing it up with a barnstorming set. The cd runs for just under seventy minutes, but the pace never lets up and by then end, I’m always exhilarated by what I’ve just heard. It’s one of his best sounding live albums, with the bass and drums sounding full and fat, and the man himself is on fire. I’d go so far as to say that the version of Machine Gun here is the definitive one for me, personally speaking; and throw in sucker-punch versions of I Don’t Live Today and Voodoo Child, and you have a killer album.
If you’ve made it to the end of this piece, then you’ll realise what a wealth of live material there is to explore, but hopefully this informal introduction will help guide you to the concerts of most interest to you. I had a great time researching every one of these albums, and each time I revisit them I hear something new. Hopefully you will too.