I don’t normally go see cover acts, mostly because of the constant belly aching from my friends in “real” bands about how those “Freebird” playing yahoos are always taking money out of their pockets. And after getting burned one too many times by lame tribute acts (OK, just that once, but you know who you are and you should be ashamed!), I was wary of the “Experience Hendrix” tribute tour because I love Jimi Hendrix and refuse to let some hack ruin him for me.
But with a lineup that includes Jimi’s original Band of Gypsys and Experience bassist Billy Cox, guitar wizards Steve Vai, Kenny Wayne Shepherd, Jonny Lang, Aerosmith’s Brad Whitford, Eric Johnson and Robert Randolph, in addition to Living Colour, members of Los Lobos, Ernie Isley, Susan Tedeschi and former Stevie Ray Vaughan drummer Chris Layton, you kind of couldn’t lose, right? I mean, this was not some bozo with a Hendrix jones butchering “Hey Joe” at the local coffee house.
Even so, when I walked into the Taft Theater in Cincinnati on Wednesday night (November 17), I arrived with modest expectations.
Living Colour helped kick thing off properly with a funked up “Power of Soul” and a punk-edged “Crosstown Traffic” complete with whammy bar lightning solo from guitarist Vernon Reid and some double kick drum thunder. Bassist Doug Wimbish even got in on the action by playing a solo with his teeth.
Each act wisely chose not to mimic Hendrix or overcompensate, which would explain why Texas slinger Johnson gave his tunes a reverb-heavy outer space blues shimmer for classics like “Are You Experienced?,” on which he showed off his hand-blurring hummingbird strum.
Susan Tedeschi, assisted by Aerosmith’s Whitford, gave “If 6 Was 9” and “Spanish Castle Magic” a dirty Texas blues vibe, while Los Lobos’ David Hidalgo and Cesar Rosas put a barrio twang on a fast and loose “Can You See Me.”
Cincinnati’s own cosmic funkateer Bootsy Collins came out with slide great Robert Randolph for a loose and sanctified “Purple Haze” (how loose? Bootsy appeared to be referring to a magazine with the lyrics as a cheat sheet). Moments later, Glover, Hidalgo, Rosas and Randolph teamed with Cox for a gospel shout version of “Them Changes.”
What became clear was that the veterans were having a blast playing these songs and jamming with each other on the tunes they cut their teeth on as up-and-comers.
Lang was a perfect example. He put his focus on gritty vocals on “All Along the Watchtower,” preferring to strum an acoustic while Whitford handled the screaming leads. Even with an electric strapped on for a full-force “Fire,” Lang deferred to his elder statesman and hung back playing rhythm as Whitford proved why he’s Aerosmith’s secret weapon.
Kenny Wayne Shepherd went all in on “I Don’t Live Today,” strutting, posing and flipping his bleach blonde hair as he played southern fried approximations of Jimi’s machine gun riffs on that tune and a swinging “Let the Good Times Roll.”
Two hours into the show, Shepherd’s showmanship and master class in fiery boogie blues reached for the expansive, expressive Hendrix magic and wowed the crowd.
The behind-the-head solo and snaky lead on “Voodoo Chile (Slight Return)” was just gravy at that point and set the stage for the night’s headliner, six string spaceman Steve Vai.
Strutting out in leather pants, shades and a black t-shirt, Vai coaxed a storm of alien noise out of his guitar, karate chopping, licking and swiping at the strings during a virtuosic display on “Midnight,” twisting Hendrix’s already knotty torrents into an even thicker shower of screaming, alien notes.
He closed the show with a chaotic, scorched earth “Foxy Lady” (with an assist from Randolph, Living Colour and Bootsy), proving that you can pay homage with just giving lip service.
And just like that, my faith was restored.