Thirty-five years after his death, Jimi Hendrix is still The Man. The howling winds of his talent — his breathtaking guitar technique, his eloquent melodic gift, his astral songcraft and his wrangling of raw feedback into a revolutionary new kind of music — still surge and roar through the four studio albums he managed to record in the course of a solo career that lasted little more than three years.
For those who missed him in the flesh, there’s not a lot of live Hendrix available on video, and what there is ranges in quality from the must-see (his scene-shaking 1967 U.S. debut in “The Complete Monterey Pop Festival”) to the needn’t-bother (pass up at any opportunity the 1971 pseudo-documentary, “Rainbow Bridge”).
The iconic Hendrix performance, of course, is his bombs-away rendition of “The Star Spangled Banner” at the 1969 Woodstock Festival. (Click here to watch part of that performance right now.) But Hendrix played a full set at Woodstock; in the famous 1970 documentary of the event, “The Star Spangled Banner” is all that remains (with a bit of lyrical, minor-key improvisation edited on at the end). What happened to the rest of it?
Well, the missing footage turned up on an overseas-only DVD in 1999, and now it’s finally been released here, in a two-disc set called “Jimi Hendrix Live at Woodstock,” with the music remixed into Dolby 5.1 Surround Sound. What took so long? And has it been worth the wait? Let’s see.
Hendrix was supposed to close the three-day Woodstock Festival at midnight on Sunday, August 17. However, the event was so chaotically disorganized, and running so late, that he didn’t actually walk out on stage until 9 a.m. the following morning, by which time much of the crowd of 400,000 people had departed, leaving behind a vast, blasted landscape of mud and garbage, and a much smaller contingent of blitzed fans clumped up around the front of the stage.
Hendrix and his group were announced as the Jimi Hendrix Experience, but in fact only drummer Mitch Mitchell remained from that classic trio, which had erupted out of London just two years earlier. Now Mitchell was joined by not one, but two other percussionists (essentially conga players) and two of Hendrix’s old Army buddies: Billy Cox, a bare-bones bassist, and Larry Lee, who had the thankless job of rhythm guitarist. The new band had only been rehearsing for about 10 days, and Mitchell says that when he arrived for the gig they were still pretty sloppy. Hendrix called them Gypsy Sun & Rainbows, and it’s a blessing from the gods of musical history that they are audible here in only the most elementary way. It’s all about Jimi, and his guitar.
“I see that we meet again,” he says, stepping up to the microphone in that flamboyantly fringed white-suede shirt and blue velvet bell-bottoms. Then he cranks up the famous white Strat and takes off, starting with “Message to Love,” a blazing funk exercise that was brand new at the time, and ripping on through the hits: “Purple Haze,” “Foxey Lady,” “Fire,” “Spanish Castle Magic” and, as an encore, “Hey Joe.” There’s also a pretty fabulous rendition of “Voodoo Child (Slight Return)” and of course “The Star Spangled Banner,” during which Hendrix manages to keep playing while repeatedly reaching up over the neck of the guitar with his picking hand to adjust string tunings. (The Fender Stratocaster of that time was a famously hard guitar to keep in tune, and the wet, cruddy weather at Woodstock no doubt exacerbated the problem.)
The material Hendrix played at Woodstock was what you’d expect — as always, it was the execution that set heads spinning. The footage here is filled with close-ups of his outsize hands, and you can see him bend screaming strings from one side of the fretboard all the way across to the other. His fingers sail up and down the neck with supreme ease, and yet his soloing never devolves into cliché — it’s put together and paced with lightning intelligence. And his rhythm playing is every bit as amazing: At one point, wailing all over the bedrock three-chord blues, “Red House,” he lays back to let Larry Lee take a solo — an act of remarkable, if entirely unnecessary, generosity — and, since the camera stays riveted on Hendrix, we see him restlessly charging the song with high-flying chord inversions and rhythmic stings that are more fascinating than anything Lee could possibly be playing. (He’s barely audible.) At another juncture, Hendrix gets so carried off into the music that he simply spirals away from the band, spinning off an ever-evolving series of genius riffs embellished with beautifully elaborated Eastern-tinged melodic motifs.
All of which is to say that, as woefully inadequate as the band here may be, Hendrix himself is an astonishment — there are times when you look at what he’s doing and you truly can’t believe your eyes. Or, more to the point, your ears.
So is “Jimi Hendrix Live at Woodstock” worth owning? Absolutely. There are problems, though, the worst being the glaring daylight in which it was shot. The stage, cluttered with equipment and crowded with wiped-out, gawking onlookers, has the ambience of a car-repair shop, so that no matter how many angles we get on the action (there were 15 cameras rolling at Woodstock, but by the end of Hendrix’s set, only two were still functioning), the visual texture of the performance grows monotonous. I think we can also assume that the cameramen, after three long days of working in the most squalid and trying conditions, were exhausted, which would account for the languidly drifting pans, the sometimes shaky framing and the occasional focus problems. The filming of “Woodstock” was a pioneering enterprise, and under the circumstances, the filmmakers probably did as expert a job as was humanly possible. Only hindsight allows us the luxury of carping.
Basically, this film captures the most innovative guitarist in rock history surmounting a third-rate band and a dismal performance environment, and getting over on sheer, spectacular talent. If you’ve never seen Jimi Hendrix play before, then you’ve never seen anything like this. And chances are pretty good that you’ll never see anything like it again.
— Kurt Loder
For more on Jimi Hendrix, check out the MTV News Archive.
For more of Kurt Loder’s film reviews, check out the Kurt Loder on Film archive.