When a pop musician has been dead 40 years, it’s hard to get people to take you seriously when you talk about how great they were. There have been a million players since his or her time and people whose parents might not even have been alive when the person was in their prime are going to, with good reason, ask why they should even care. Let’s face it, every generation always hears it from their elders how much better everything was in their time and learns how to tune them out, so why should this generation be an exception? It’s especially difficult when so called “Classic Rock” stations choke the airwaves with uninspired shit that gives the impression that the music of four decades ago was as unimaginative as what they hear on the radio today.
So I can’t blame anyone if their eyes started to glaze over simply reading the title of the item under review here. Not another article extolling the virtues of some long dead rock star. What makes him so special that we should give a shit about a DVD shot 40 years ago of this guy performing? The sound quality probably sucks and the pictures can’t be much better, so why should I shell out however much its going to cost? All of which are perfectly fair questions and the only answer I can offer is because seeing is believing. In spite of any deficiencies in audio and visual quality, I’m willing to bet that you’ve never seen anyone like Jimi Hendrix and after watching the newly remastered and restored version of Jimi Plays Berkeley, released by Legacy Recordings, you’ll agree.
Jimi Plays Berkeley isn’t a concert film in the typical sense of the word, it’s more like a documentary film about a concert Hendrix gave and what was happening in America at the time. The University of California, Berkeley was one of the centres for student unrest in the 1960s and 1970s. The Free Speech Movement, protesting the censorship of student newspapers by the governors of the university, began mounting demonstrations in 1964. These expanded to include demonstrations against the war in Vietnam and other causes. By the time Hendrix’s concert took place in 1970, running battles between student demonstrators and police were common occurrences in Berkeley.
All of which explains why the directors of this movie elected to include footage of various demonstrations. Whether or not these protests actually occurred during the weekend Hendrix’s concerts were taking place is another question. However, it does give you a historical context within which to place his music and an idea of events in society that inspired him. Barely three weeks before the concert’s May 30 date, the Ohio National Guard had shot and killed four students at Kent State University during a protest against the war on May 4, 1970. So songs like “Machine Gun” and “I Don’t Live Today”, while not specifically inspired by that event, would have had special resonance for the audience.
The movie opens with Hendrix and some of his entourage driving to the venue for his afternoon rehearsal in a limousine. Quiet and unassuming, he seems to be in a world of his own, quietly staring out of the car window as the others chat and drink beer. He may have dressed the part, but Hendrix never came across like your typical rock star, and you glimpse that here. From the limo we move into the concert hall, The Berkeley Community Theatre, where we see some footage of Hendrix, drummer Mitch Mitchell, and bass player Billy Cox rehearsing for the evenings performance. At one point, Hendrix instructs Cox on what kind of bass line he needs for a particular transition into a solo by singing him the arrangement. It’s a lovely little moment that gives you some insight into how careful he was with his arrangements and the attention he paid to every last detail.
The rehearsals are also our first indication that the sound quality of this recording is going to be far superior than we would have suspected judging by the quality of the video. For while there’s little that can be done to improve an old film’s quality, modern digital technology has allowed Hendrix’s original recording engineer, Eddie Kramer, to re-master the soundtrack of the film in 5.1 surround sound. While that won’t eliminate any of the flaws in the original, it does mean the sound is far cleaner then it would have been when the film was first released. Having heard other recordings from the same time period made under similar conditions, I could immediately notice the difference. It was most noticeable in the way each instrument was discernible in the mix. In a lot of older recordings I’ve heard of Hendrix, what you normally have is a wall of sound which his guitar would occasionally break through and you’d be lucky if you ever heard his vocals.
Hendrix was notoriously self-conscious of his voice and even on studio albums his vocals were often muted. However, Kramer has done an excellent job of not only managing to isolate him while he’s singing but to make sure we hear everything he says to his audience. This is important because it allows us to hear his opening introduction asking them to forget about yesterday or tomorrow, as this is “our own little world tonight”.
The material he performed during the concert was his usual mix of traditional blues, “Hear My Train A Comin'”, his own material, “Purple Haze”, “I Don’t Live Today”, “Machine Gun”, and “Voodoo Child (Slight Return)”, and his two favourite covers, “Johnny B Goode” and “The Star Spangled Banner”. Listening to him play is only half the story. It’s watching him that you truly begin to understand how special he was. Listening, you forget he’s playing a right-hand guitar strung for a left-handed person upside down and backwards, or that his beloved Stratocaster was not designed to be played that way. Watch his hands on the fret board—they seem to have a life of their own as they fly up and down it, pick out notes on the bridge, make adjustments to the guitar’s controls, and ply the whammy bar.
Unlike today’s guitarists, who have rack upon rack of effects peddles they can modulate their sound with at the touch of a foot, there’s barely a peddle to be seen on the stage in front of Hendrix. Aside from a wah-wah peddle and a couple of others which he doesn’t even seem to make use of, he’s creating every sound that comes out of his guitar simply by playing with the sound. Throwing his whole body into almost every note, like he’s trying to see how far he can bend or milk the sound for that extra little bit of impact, he looks to be entering into another world. When he comes back to the microphone to sing it’s like he’s returning from a voyage and reporting back to his listeners on what he’s seen. Watching him come alive with the guitar in his hands, one realizes how much the music meant to him. The more you see and hear him play the more you realize it wasn’t about fame for him. The money he made allowed him to play and create. Just before he died, he had opened Electric Lady Studios where he recorded his last studio albums. It was meant to be his laboratory where he could make wonderful things come to life. Instead it became his legacy where others now go and record.
Jimi Plays Berkeley also contains a couple of special features. One of them is the second concert of the weekend re-mastered in 5.1 audio. This concert has been released before with questionable audio so it’s good to have a clean version of it. Its also being released as a stand alone CD and special edition two hundred gram vinyl. The second special feature is an interview with Abe Jacob, Hendrix’s touring sound engineer. Listening to him you understand just how primitive equipment was in those days compared to our standards. For the time they were considered way out there because of Hendrix’s need for multiple amplifiers and stacks. But it drives home the point of how little he depended on effects for what he did.
Jimi Hendrix would have been 70 years old on his next birthday (November 27, 2012) if he had lived and there’s no way of knowing what kind of music he might have gone on to create. The good thing is that after years of inferior recordings being released, cheapening his musical legacy, we are finally having the opportunity to hear his music in the best shape possible. Jimi Plays Berkeley may not be perfect, but rock and roll isn’t about perfection, its about heart and passion. This DVD gives us an opportunity to see Jimi Hendrix’s heart and passion and some of the events going on at the time that would have fuelled his creativity. Watch it and understand why there will never be anyone else quite like him again.