LP Review: Jimi Hendrix, ‘Both Sides of the Sky,’ The Vaults Runneth Over…

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The Hendrix vaults, like my cup, runneth over… I can’t believe this long after Jimi Hendrix’s tragic, early demise that there are still recordings of this high quality that haven’t already been released yet. Of course, my friend Matthew will tell you there’s probably a second guitarist on the grassy knoll – there isn’t one Matt… These are, for the most part, fully realized, in-studio tracks that I’ve never heard before. Full disclosure, unlike Dylan, I’ve never been a Hendrix completist. I own a lot of his music, but no bootlegs whatsoever. Kudos to Eddie Kramer, Hendrix’s engineer back in the day, for pulling this together and making it sound so exceptional. I’m sure there are pasty guys in New York with goatees and grizzled visages who have book cases full of reel-to-reel tapes that they only handle when wearing white gloves, who have heard these songs bootlegged before… but for me most of the tracks on the newly released Both Sides of the Sky are new revelations. This album completes what I consider a loose trilogy of albums full of unreleased Hendrix tracks: Valleys of Neptune and People, Hell and Angels being the other two albums… All of which are essential for any Hendrix fan or fans of electric guitar in general.

After spending the weekend with this album and the other two I mention, I have to say, with all apologies to Eddie Van Halen (who I recently wrote about) and Jimmy Page (whose playing I adore), Jimi Hendrix is simply the greatest guitarist who ever lived. It’s not even close. I’m sure there are people out there who will want to fight me on this… I can remember when I was in junior high, sitting at the back of the school bus heading home one day. I alway sat in the back of the bus with the stoners. They were high but they were generally smarter people than the jocks up front. These two guys sitting in the rows in front of me got into an actual fist fight because they were arguing about what musical direction Hendrix would have taken if he’d lived. One of them made the mistake of saying Hendrix would have gone into jazz. The next thing I knew, punches are being thrown. I gotta say, those stoners were dedicated music fans.

Since Hendrix built and owned Electric Lady Studios, I like to think he’d have made a fortune from other artists recording there… I’d like to think, had he lived, Hendrix would be living in a condo above the studio, the reclusive ex-guitar God, who nobody sees or hears from unless he comes down on the street to score some weed. Maybe every once in a while he’d grant an interview where he’d say a few pro-Peace things, a few anti-Trump barbs and maybe drop the words “groovy” and “dig it” into his conversation. He’d refer to everyone as “Dude.” Eventually he’d have made the inevitable Rick Rubin produced comeback album – in Hendrix’s case it would have probably been an all acoustic, Blind Lemon Jefferson covers album. It’d probably win a Grammy. After a rambling speech accepting his Grammy, he’d return to his reclusive ways, where he’d only be seen occasionally wandering through the studio in a kaftan, headed out on the street to buy more weed. But then again, my imagination may be getting away from me on this…

The recordings that make up Both Sides of the Sky, from what I can ascertain, come from roughly 1968 to 1970. Since Hendrix owned a studio he spent almost all of his time when he wasn’t touring, recording what was to be the follow-up to Electric Ladyland. I think besides Electric Lady, he also spent a lot of time at New York’s Record Plant where some of these tracks were recorded. The line up of musicians on these tracks changes by track. Some of these songs feature the Experience, Mitch Mitchell on drums and Noel Redding on bass. Others feature the guys who were in the Band of Gypsies, Buddy Miles on drums and Billy Cox on bass.

There are different versions of songs here that have appeared elsewhere. Each of the the three albums I mentioned above has a version of the blues tune, “Hear My Train a Comin’.” That may make you shy away from a compilation like this, but I can literally listen to each version and find something different in each one. Hendrix is like a painter, like say, Cezanne, who would paint the same water lilies repeatedly, but using different colors, different perspective, different arrangement of the subject. Like that, Hendrix approaches the song and the solos differently on each track. Hendrix was, at heart a blues guy. Like Dylan with folk music, Hendrix, no matter how far he strayed into psychedelia, would return to the blues. I get the feeling that “Hear My Train a Comin'” was his in-studio warm up jam. He gets the band together, the microphones get set up and to heat up the room, the band naturally goes to it’s comfort zone and they play the blues. The solo on this version is ferocious.

There are other titles you’ll recognize, but these are different versions of the songs. I’ve heard “Lover Man” on live albums, but this is the first studio version I’ve heard. I’d also heard “Power of Soul” on the live album, Band of Gypsies, but this is the first studio version for me. There’s what sounds like an earlier version of “Stepping Stone,” which appeared on the album First Rays of the New Rising Sun. All of these, if you’ve heard the other versions, gives you a glimpse into Hendrix’s creative process. They show how he’d often recut and rerecord his guitar parts endlessly until he got something that was revelatory to him. It’s great stuff.

He has a number of collaborations here. Stephen Stills shows up on two tracks. There’s what must have been an earlier version of Joni Mitchell’s “Woodstock,” on this record, before CSNY did it, where Stills plays organ and Hendrix plays bass. While I like that, Stills does a song “$20 Fine” where he sings and plays organ and Hendrix plays guitar that is fantastic. I can’t believe Stills never returned to that song. I knew these guys were friends, almost every other solo Stills plays now he adds in the liner notes, “Guitar solo inspired by James Marshall Hendrix.” I don’t know why he can’t just say Jimi. Sometimes, though talented, I get the feeling Stills is a bit of an asshole. The other collaborations, and they’re both “knock you out” awesome, are Hendrix with Johnny Winter doing “Things That I Used to Do” a track I first heard in the capable hands of Stevie Ray Vaughn. It’s as bluesy as hell. It’s fun to hear Hendrix and Winter, master blues guys, trading riffs. The second collaboration is Hendrix with his old friend, saxophonist Lonnie Youngblood and they do this fabulous tune “Georgia Blues.” I can’t believe this track wasn’t released. Lonnie sings on the song and it amazes me that Hendrix can step back, out of the spotlight and yet still stand out. All those years as a side-man on the “Chitlin Circuit” taught him well.

On unreleased compilations like this, there are usually instrumental tracks, stuff the band laid down but didn’t get back to in order to record lyrics/vocals. There are a few of those here. There’s an atmospheric thing called “Jungle” that just builds and builds. There’s an early version of the song “Angel,” here without the vocals called “Sweet Angel.” The best of the instrumental stuff here is “Cherokee Mist.” Hendrix is playing a sitar as well as guitar on that one. It starts off with a tribal sort of drum thing and then the band kicks in. It’s one of the best tracks here.

I already reviewed his take on Muddy’s “Mannish Boy” (Jimi Hendrix: “Mannish Boy,” From The Upcoming, ‘Both Sides of the Sky’). It’s Muddy’s lyrics set to a rolling riff that explodes with guitar fury at the end. Another great headphones listen. The only track that jumped out to me as a “in studio creation” is “Send My Love to Linda.” It starts off as solo Hendrix voice/guitar and midway through they splice it with a band version of the song. The splice is pretty jarring. It couldn’t have been worse if they’d recorded Kramer pulling the scotch tape off the roll and slapping it on the magnetic tape. Still, the guitar work at the end is pretty amazing. I’d call that song a nice to have, not a have to have.

It’s been a wonderful weekend spending time with the master of all things guitar, Jimi Hendrix. I love this album, it may be my favorite of the trilogy of unreleased stuff. I advise anybody who loves Hendrix to pick this up. This certainly wouldn’t be where I’d start my Hendrix collection – pick up the albums he released in his life time – and then work your way through some of the live stuff. But when you end up here, at the unreleased stuff, his playing will change the way you think about guitar.

Cheers!

 

Jimi Hendrix: “Mannish Boy,” From The Upcoming, ‘Both Sides of the Sky’

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As I said on one my earliest posts, when reviewing Jimi Hendrix’s superb live album, Freedom: Atlanta Pop Festival (Review: The Jimi Hendrix Experience, Freedom: Atlanta Pop Festival (Live)), just when I thought I was done buying Jimi Hendrix albums, he pulls me back in. When Hendrix passed, he had a ton of unreleased studio material. After he released Electric Ladyland, between concerts and endless touring he would hole up at his Electric Lady studios and record. He was deep into writing and recording the follow up to Electric Ladyland, (which was to be a double album as well) when he sadly passed away.

When Hendrix passed, like so many other rockers, like say Prince, he didn’t have his estate set up. When you’re a rock star, who can be bothered with legal documents like a last will and testament. When you’re young, you feel like you’re going to live forever…add rock stardom to that, and who can blame Jimi. After his father died, there were the usual legal battles over his legacy and his estate. Eventually, his sister Janie Hendrix found herself in control of Jimi’s estate. She formed Experience Hendrix and started collaborating with Hendrix’s engineer Eddie Kramer to remaster and release some of Jimi’s material in the vaults.

Personally, although I consider myself a completist, I never delved into the Hendrix’s posthumous releases. I’d heard bad things about Cry Of Love and all the egregious overdubbing of other guitarists on that album. Blasphemy of the highest order. To this day my friend in Denver, Matthew is always suspicious it’s someone else playing on newly discovered Hendrix material… Matthew, there is no second guitarist on the grassy knoll… My reluctance to delve into Hendrix’s posthumous releases ended when Janie Hendrix and Eddie Kramer put out First Rays of the New Rising Sun in 1997. I hate to use this word, but I consider it the definitive version of what might have been Jimi’s follow-up to Electric Ladyland. Kramer used the most completed, polished versions of the songs slated for the album and the notes that Hendrix himself had left behind to put together the album. Would Hendrix have changed his mind about the running order, what was included, or rerecorded guitar parts (as he was famously known to do, sometimes endlessly changing his solos up to the time of an album’s release)? Sadly, we’ll never know.

Experience Hendrix followed up First Rays with an album of “previously unreleased” songs, Valleys of Neptune in 2010, which I snatched up immediately. The title track was one of the most coveted unreleased tracks in Hendrix’s catalog and it does not disappoint. It remains one of my favorite Hendrix tracks. It’s a trippy, mid tempo, Hendrix rock tune. The songs on this album were largely recorded in 1969 with the original Experience, drummer Mitch Mitchell, and bassist Noel Redding. Yes, the album had some loose, in studio, instrumentals which sound like jam sessions, rather than fully realized tunes, but there is a lot to like on this album. There are alternative versions of songs he released prior as well. I think it’s all still essential listening, especially in light of the fantastic sound of the record. Kramer is to be commended. It’s a must-have for fans of Hendrix.

Experience Hendrix then followed Valleys with an album of “12 previously unreleased” songs, People, Hell and Angels in 2013. Somehow that one got by me. I just picked it up last month and it’s very much in the same vein of Valleys. Although the songs on this album were recorded by the Band of Gypsies (Billy Cox on bass, Buddy Miles on drums) over the course of 1968 and 1969. Stephen Stills even shows up to play bass on the stand-out track, “Somewhere.” There are different versions of “Earth Blues” and “Izabella.” I have to admit, I really love Hendrix’s solo’ing on this album. He was truly in the zone when he was in the studio. And once again, the over-all sound of this record is fantastic. If you listen to it on headphones, there is a real danger your head might explode. This stuff might have already been out there in the vast world of bootlegs, but I have never come across any Hendrix boots (and I have a long bootleg history) and I’m pretty certain anything bootlegged wouldn’t sound this tremendous.

At that point, I assumed the vaults were empty. I mean, Experience Hendrix had released a box-set of material, West Coast Seattle Boy that had to clear out the vaults, right? If Hendrix coughed near a microphone, it was recorded and released on that box… They even included Jimi sitting in a hotel room singing a cover by the Band (“Tears of Rage”), with an acoustic guitar and a tape recorder. I’m not sure how they did it, but it sounds a lot better than I thought it would. So at this point, could there really be any more in the vaults? The answer, it appears, is yes.

My friend, Drummer Blake, texted me a few weeks ago and said, “New Hendrix is coming out in March, that could be interesting.” Indeed, Drummer Blake, indeed. I have to admit, the upcoming release, entitled Both Sides of the Sky is one of B&V’s most anticipated new records for 2018. I’ve always considered Jimi Hendrix to be an artist in the same vein as Pablo Picasso. These were inventive artists who saw the world differently. Their art literally changed the form: Picasso for painting, Hendrix for guitar. But Hendrix, at his very roots, at his very core, was a bluesman. In the same way, over the course of his long career, Bob Dylan always seems to return to folk music, (on late period albums like World Gone Wrong or Good As I Been To You), Hendrix, no matter how experimental or psychedelic his music got, always returned to the blues. I think I have around a dozen versions of “Red House” and “Hear My Train A Comin’.”

So it was no surprise to me that the first track Hendrix released from Both Sides of the Sky is a blues tune, Muddy Waters’ classic “Mannish Boy.” Muddy Waters, along with B.B. King and Howlin Wolf are for me, the Titans of the Blues. Muddy’s version of “Mannish Boy” recorded with and produced by Johnny Winters on Hard Again, is not only the definitive version, it’s probably the greatest blues tune ever done. Although, I’m also very fond of Albert King’s “Born Under A Bad Sign,” but I digress. With the Rock Chick gone for the weekend, I’ve been obsessively listening to this new Hendrix version.

First and foremost, I love that Jimi went back to the blues and I especially love that he chose to record this Muddy Waters’ tune. That said, there is very little that Hendrix’s version of “Mannish Boy” has in common with Muddy’s version. Yes, its the same song, but as I said about Hendrix seeing the world differently, this version is very much done in a Hendrix-y fashion. There is no call and response vocals, like the way Muddy and Jimmy Rivers do it. Hendrix plays it faster, with an almost funky, psychedelic effect to the guitar. The vocal is quite impassioned. He sings the notes of his early solos through the song. You can tell how “at home” Hendrix felt in the blues. There are a few, very brief bass solos as well. I don’t have liner notes so I’m not sure whose on bass here… There is also a brief, melt your face off, blast of guitar towards the end that I can’t stop focusing on. Hearing that last blast of guitar reminded me what an influence Hendrix was on John Frusciante, former Red Hot Chili Pepper’s guitarist. Hendrix was just simply put, a Guitar God and his playing can take the mundane to the sublime. This is a fun track and I think it bodes very well for the album. I highly recommend any Hendrix, guitar or blues fan, checks this track out.

Cheers!