When I was a kid, I hated live records. I couldn’t understand why a band would want to put out songs that didn’t sound like they did on the record, were recorded worse than the studio versions, and were all noisy and dead or muted and flat. Then, my pal Robbie got the Live at Winterland cassette from Columbia House, and we listened to it non-stop in his basement, playing air guitar and seeing how loud we could push his boombox before it broke. The first notes of “Fire” that bust in after Bill Graham’s introduction made me go nuts. I didn’t know live music could sound so good and, well, alive. I also had no idea that 20 years later I’d be bugging out to the same recordings. Whether or not this is the Hendrix estate milking his back catalog for lost gems is anybody’s guess, but this concert series shows the band in a well-rounded light that any fan—completist or dabbler—will appreciate.
Winterland paints a pretty clear picture of most of The Experience’s studio material, worked out, jammed, and put through the Marshall stack wringer for all it’s worth. Although recorded over three days a few weeks before their last album was to be released, aside from a little taste of “Voodoo Child (Slight Return)” that’s about it, unfortunately, from Electric Ladyland. It’s quite a big undertaking to sit through all four discs without wanting put it back on the shelf for a little while, so maybe make it a three-night affair as well.
There’s no talk about acid or Hendrix slipping a ten-strip into his headband before sweating out the songs, and it’s clear that if the band isn’t playing totally straight, they aren’t stoned out of their minds. Anyone that’s ever watched a Behind the Music knows that Hendrix shows were always filled with world-renowned musicians and the glitterati, and Hendrix calls some his friends up to the stage. Jefferson Airplane’s Jack Casady takes the bass from Noel Redding at one point during the first show, and Hendrix takes the opportunity to rip through Howlin’ Wolf’s “Killing Floor,” almost losing Casady in the dust before he even gets started. On the second disc, “Are You Experienced?” gets the flute freak out treatment, as per the LP recording, from Virgil Gonsalves of the Buddy Miles Trio, as opposed to the version on disc three that’s rendered thickly with screeching feedback. Live flaws and all, it seems like Gonsalves missed his cue because he only brings it back after the band swells up to full blast. It’s noted in the included booklet by David Fricke that the majority of recordings had been shelved, short of the aforementioned release, and there’s the reason. This isn’t a cut and dried edit for consumer consumption. It’s full of biffed fills and forgotten cues, “whatever, keep playing” moments, and plagued by equipment breakdowns and limitations. There’s a heavy amount of stage banter from Hendrix, crediting the original songwriters of the covers they play, apologizing for the equipment, or humbly explaining why they tune between every single song, “which is not really a hang up, it’s because we care for your ears.” That humbleness, which isn’t, in all honesty, that warranted, is countered by his silly demeanor before the first night’s version of “Foxy Lady,” which he dedicates to “I don’t know, somebody’s old lady that will come up stage at the end of the night,” with a laugh. This dude should have the biggest ego on the planet where he was at right then, but, compared to some artists nowadays with less than a fingernail of his career, talent and accomplishment, he comes off like an altar boy. “Okay, and so like, I think we’d really love to come back kinda soon and make up for this junk that we had behind us.... We just came off a tour you know? It was really hectic. I think we went through about six sets of Sunns at least and about four Marshalls. This is about the fifth set. They’ve about had it. They been screwed, you know, really properly.”
Hendrix cribs from John Lennon’s “I Feel Fine” in the incidental riff between lyrics on “Hey Joe,” if not purely to display reverence, then probably just because he felt like fitting it in there, or “entertaining myself” as he notes in the 20-minute interview at the end of the fourth disc. Hendrix is wary about explaining any of the drama involved with his early career and Curtis Knight, but ends up explaining it in a roundabout way. If you’re wondering about Jimi’s side of the story, he lays it all out. He doesn’t talk about drugs or getting messed up or partying. There’s a few little bits about Cream dissolving and other little quips of current events, and these can seem a little more interesting than the music to those that have outgrown “hearing” Hendrix. Commenting on the press and image-making in England, “It’s Mickey Mouse. People wanna hear about the music. I don’t wanna hear about no fads at all.”
Don’t forget, though, that there’s a whole lot of music on these discs. The band absolutely destroys Frances Scott Key’s boozing song, “The Star Spangled Banner,” in a dimensional guitar shift like a premonition of Glenn Branca. They certainly toned it down for the more well-known version from Woodstock, that’s for sure. “Spanish Castle Magic,” included on the first release, slams murderously between love ditty “Little Wing” and the Crockpot blues of “Red House.” All four versions of “Purple Haze” are scintillating and different from one another, and all three versions of “Foxy Lady” are just as tongue-in-cheek and bombastic as the much too played-out radio cut. Both 12-minute versions of Dylan’s “Like a Rolling Stone” show how Hendrix and his band could make a song their own without pilfering all the good parts or leaving the husk of the song on the floor. He plays every note like he means it and sings all the words like they were his in the first place. He spells it out in the included interview, while playing along with his answers, switching between an unplugged electric and an acoustic guitar (which he tunes first), “They’re my notes.”
Michael P. O’Shaughnessy