It’s been nearly 40 years since the most revolutionary guitarist of all time, Jimi Hendrix, passed away. With three landmark studio albums to his name, plus gems of unreleased material left behind, making a proper posthumous studio album with the latter has always been a tough and controversial task.
No one will ever know for sure how Hendrix himself would have sequenced, fine-tuned and what he would’ve named the follow-up to his third and final album in his lifetime, 1968’s seminal double LP Electric Ladyland. We do know however, it was meant to be a big project – a double or triple LP – that the guitarist had been working on for over two years before his death in September of 1970 at age 27.
The first few attempts at posthumous releases, The Cry of Love and Rainbow Bridge from 1971 and War Heroes from 1972 were revealing but felt incomplete. It wasn’t until 1997, when Hendrix’s trusted recording engineer Eddie Kramer and drummer Mitch Mitchell used his last handwritten notes and remastered/resequenced his last tracks on the 17-track-long First Rays of the New Rising Sun that one got a true and mostly satisfying picture of the guitarist’s ever changing musical vision at the time, which struck a more serious tone lyrically and incorporated newer sounds to his repertoire.
13 years later, the newest versions of First Rays, an mp3/digital edition available via online stores such as ScatterTunes, plus a CD+DVD edition out this spring do not exactly enhance the actual sound – not that it’s needed with all the previous remastering over the years. But the former is more convenient for the current digital music age, while the latter contains a viewing experience that does enhance and make you appreciate the audio portion a little more via a new companion 20-minute DVD documentary of the making of this “concept compilation.”
Starring Mr. Kramer (and also former Hendrix bassist Billy Cox and drummer Mitch Mitchell), the DVD gives you the fullest sense yet of how Jimi’s ideas for songs turned from sole guitar tracks and hotel room recordings to full blown full band masterpieces. It also gives insight into the changing dynamics between Jimi, bassist Billy Cox and drummer Mitch Mitchell in recording sessions. For example, they developed a sort of funky rhythmic chemistry and style for songs like “Night Bird Flying.”
The highlights come when Kramer uses his mammoth recording mixer to reveal what Jimi’s individual guitar tracks sounded like in their earliest stages. One song in particular, “Angel,” had Jimi recording all the song’s guitar, bass and drum parts back in 1967, with Kramer giving viewers a clip of what that early recording sounded like as he explained its progression from that demo to full band classic recorded at the guitarist’s then soon to be legendary Electric Lady Studios in NYC.
The aforementioned “Night Bird Flying” gains even more appreciation here as Kramer marvels over the incredible mind of Hendrix while playing the track’s four individual and sophisticated electric guitar parts one at a time, then together as they appeared on the final studio recording.
In all, these 17 tracks contain works from the Jimi Hendrix Experience and the guitarist’s follow-up power trio, the (bluesier) Band of Gypsys (featuring Buddy Miles on drums/backing vocals and Billy Cox on bass). And nearly all of it is phenomenal and shows a high level of creativity on Jimi’s part unmatched by his peers before or since.
One can forever question whether Hendrix himself would’ve included all of these song choices, especially in the forms he left them in. Hard rock instrumental gem “Beginnings,” for example has some scratchy production to it that Hendrix most likely would’ve wanted to do away with before releasing it. After all, the man was a perfectionist in the studio. But it would be a waste of time.
Whether it’s funky or outright rockin’ tracks like “Freedom,” “Izabella,” or “Ezy Ryder” (featuring Buddy Miles on drums and Traffic’s Steve Winwood and Chris Wood on backing vocals), or the softer “Angel,” there is hardly anything to quarrel with as far as quality songwriting material.
As to who needs this previously available collection is concerned, if you’re a late comer to Hendrix or a big fan but want it on your iPod/mp3 player, the digital version is for you. But if you have the 1997 CD version, you don’t necessarily need these new releases unless you are dying for more history on these landmark recordings or are a completist who has to have everything Hendrix.
Whether it’s the new digital First Rays, new DVD-enhanced CD or old, CD-only edition, it’s an essential collection for all Hendrix fans.