Tuesday, November 5 will be a banner day for Jimi Hendrix fans everywhere. That evening, PBS will air the two-hour documentary, American Masters: Jimi Hendrix – Hear My Train A Comin’. On the same day, an expanded edition of the film will be released on DVD & Blu-ray with bonus features including extra performance footage. On top of all that, the Jimi Hendrix Experience – Miami Pop Festival will be the first-ever release of the May 1968 concert on CD and as a limited edition numbered double 12″ audiophile vinyl set.
Between them, these releases have something for everyone, whether you’re experienced with the music of Hendrix or not. For example, those already immersed in the life and legacy of the late rock icon aren’t likely to hear much that’s new in the televised version of the American Masters documentary. For 40 years now, we’ve seen a plethora of print biographies such as last year’s 70th birthday publications including very insightful books like Steven Brody’s Hendrix on Hendrix: Interviews and Encounters with Jimi Hendrix. Films on Hendrix began with the 1973 Warner Brothers retrospective simply titled Jimi Hendrix. This year sees the release of All Is By My Side, a fictionalized biopic starring André Benjamin as the late guitarist. In short, there are very few moments from Hendrix’s life and work that haven’t been scrutinized in minute detail before.
So the PBS broadcast of Hear My Train A Comin’ should primarily interest anyone who knows little to nothing about the man born Johnny Allen Hendrix on November 27, 1942 in Seattle, Washington. In a straight-forward chronological flow, we hear from family members about Jimi’s formative years, especially from his father James (“Al”) and sister Janie Hendrix, who dug into the family archives to share many never previously seen Hendrix documents and photos. In his own words, Jimi talks about his pre-fame work with groups like the Isley Brothers in historic interviews such as his rare TV appearance on The Dick Cavett Show. Then, we hear about how former Animals bassist Chas Chandler discovered Hendrix, took him to England, and helped shape the Jimi Hendrix Experience with bassist Noel Redding and drummer Mitch Mitchell.
Both Redding and Mitchell are interviewed at length (Mitchell shares some private home movies as well) along with Sir Paul McCartney, who comments on his reactions to first seeing Hendrix on stage. We also hear from studio engineer Eddie Kramer about how the Experience recordings evolved from album to album and how Hendrix built his Electric Lady studio. Other musicians interviewed include Billy Cox, who became a Hendrix friend in their military days and joined Hendrix in the short-lived Band of Gypsys. Ultimately, the story ends with Hendrix’s unexpected and accidental death on September 18, 1970 in London at the age of 27.
Beneath the surface of the biographical details, the documentary shares many insights into the man and his legend. From the beginning, it’s clear Hendrix was addicted to his guitar which was with him everywhere he went. He was also a man who loved sex with whatever attractive female made herself available. (Three ladies who give testimonials are Linda Keith, Faye Pridgeon, and fashion designer Colette Mimram.) Onstage, he was a dynamic showman who’d been trained in the craft during his early days on the road, borrowing performing tricks from the likes of bluesman T-Bone Walker. Offstage, he was shy, awkward, introverted, and even unsure of his talent.
The American Masters film also digs into Hendrix’s creative inspirations, especially American blues. Among other anatomies of Hendrix’s stage and studio work, we get the onstage stories behind the “Star Spangled Banner” at Woodstock and learn how the pressures of fame took their toll on a superstar who didn’t think he’d live past 30. But his influence certainly continues, as discussed by interviewees Steve Winwood, Vernon Reid, Billy Gibbons, Dweezil Zappa, and Dave Mason.
On the other hand, the main audience for the Miami Pop Festival should be those who already have deep Hendrix libraries and want to collect recordings of shows not already in their archives. Originally recorded at Gulfstream Park in Hallandale, Florida by Hendrix’s sound engineer Eddie Kramer, the festival is of some historical interest. It was the first major rock festival staged on the East Coast, and was the first event promoted by Michael Lang, who would later be one of the masterminds behind Woodstock.
Still, the Miami gig didn’t have the power or importance of concerts like Monterey or Woodstock. The bulk of the show offers rather rushed, workmanlike versions of “Hey Joe,” “Foxy Lady,” “Fire,” “Red House,” and “Purple Haze.” Interspersed through the hits are the first recorded live versions of “Hear My Train A Comin'” and “Tax Free,” along with a passable performance of “I Don’t Live Today.” I have to admit, the two bonus songs taped at the afternoon show, “Fire” and “Foxy Lady,” are alone worth the price of admission. The trio seemed more in sync and energized for those numbers. In addition, anytime I can hear the Mitch Mitchell drum show rumbling behind Hendrix is time well spent.
I understand the package “includes never before published photos taken at the festival and an essay by award-winning music journalist and Grammy Museum Executive Director Bob Santelli.” I can’t attest to these delights as my review copy didn’t include all that. But I was delighted to see that newly discovered film footage of the Miami show is in the bonus features on the American Masters DVD. In fact, the high definition DVD features new stereo and 5.1 surround mixes by Kramer of not only The Miami show but the July 1970 New York Pop Festival and the September 6, 1970 Love & Peace Festival at the Isle Of Fehmarn in Germany, sadly the final performance by the Jimi Hendrix Experience.
So, as the 70-year celebration begins to wind down, it’s good new audiences can be introduced to Jimi Hendrix by way of American Masters: Jimi Hendrix – Hear My Train A Comin’. It’s ideal for those who weren’t there back in the day, those who know Hendrix only from the albums and singles, or those with a casual interest in reviewing the role of an important rock trend-setter. Those with a stronger interest should not miss the expanded DVD version of the documentary, especially for the extra concert footage. And for those who are serious Hendrix fans, the Miami Pop Festival is an opportunity to hear Hendrix, Redding, and Mitchell one more time as they were in their short glory years together. May we always wave their freak flags high.