Jimi Hendrix released just three studio albums in his brief career, yet even 43 years after his death, his influence remains enormous. Are You Experienced (1967), Axis: Bold as Love (1967), and Electric Ladyland (1968) were credited to the Jimi Hendrix Experience, which also included Noel Redding (bass) and Mitch Mitchell (drums). As the lengthy list of credits on Ladyland shows though, Hendrix’s musical vision was becoming much more expansive as time went on. The trio format could hardly do justice to the music he was creating. With talk of collaborations between Miles Davis and other luminaries, it was clear he was just getting started when he passed in 1970. The new 12-song compilation People, Hell, and Angels reflects the directions Hendrix was exploring in his final full year on this planet.
Much like the previous release, Valleys of Neptune (2010), People, Hell, and Angels has been assembled with the full cooperation and endorsement of the Hendrix estate. Where Valleys presented us with the final unreleased recordings of the Jimi Hendrix Experience, People, Hell, and Angels goes even further. Most of the tracks were recorded in 1969, with various “post-Experience” ensembles. The set offers some fascinating clues as to where the unbridled creativity of Hendrix was leading him.
“Earth Blues” is the opener, and is an excellent example of what makes this such an important album. Hendrix recorded the track in November 1969 with Buddy Miles (drums) Billy Cox (bass), a.k.a. the Band of Gypsys. Fans may know “Earth Blues” from Rainbow Bridge (1971), but this is a completely different take. The Rainbow version is a prime example of what Hendrix fans took such offense to with the early posthumous releases. That recording included overdubbed backing vocals from the Ronettes (!), as well as additional guitar overdubs from Hendrix himself. Mitchell also replaced the original drum parts recorded by Miles with his own. This is a completely different track, and a showcase for the funk that he was beginning to incorporate into his music.
The focus on maintaining the integrity of the tracks is evident throughout the set. “Somewhere” was recorded in New York in 1968, as a bit of an experiment. Bass duties are handled by one Stephen Stills, with Miles back at the drum chair. The song was never released during Hendrix’s lifetime, but did appear on the controversial release Crash Landing (1975), and in another version on the Jimi Hendrix Experience box set (2000). This is a completely different take from either of those, and sounds fantastic.
One of the finest blues workouts on Electric Ladyland was “Hear My Train A Comin’.” This blistering side was recorded with Miles and Cox in May 1969. On it, Hendrix’s solo just roars with menace. “Bleeding Heart” hails from that same session, and is another wonder. This Elmore James composition was one that Hendrix found elusive to nail down, and like so many others, it remained in the can for decades. A version of the song with the Experience did see the light of day on Valleys of Neptune; this one was recorded three weeks prior to the version heard there.
Of the 12 cuts, “Let Me Love You” is the tour de force. The song finds Hendrix looking back at his days as an anonymous guitar player with the likes of the Isley Brothers and Little Richard. It sounds like the expanded six-piece band was having one hell of a time at the Clinton Recording Studios the night of March 18, 1969. “Let Me Love You” is basically Hendrix offering his services to pal Lonnie Youngblood, who sings and blows sax with abandon. Although this is a Youngblood tune, Hendrix’s guitar invariably makes it his own. The party atmosphere is contagious, and while the song would not have fit on any of Hendrix’s albums, it sounds as if he is having the time of his life.
“Izabella” was introduced at Woodstock, and released as a single in 1970. This August 1969 take was recorded with the six-piece Gypsy Sun and Rainbows Ensemble. The GSRE added Larry Lee (rhythm guitar) and Jerry Velez and Juma Sultan (percussion) to the trio of Miles, Cox, and Hendrix. The key difference with this “Izabella” and others lies with Hendrix’s growing interest in percussion, which he would most certainly have pursued further, had there been more time.
The GSRE also tackled “Easy Blues” that night. This is a funky jam, and one just has to wonder why something of this high quality has remained in the vaults for so long. Actually, an edited version of it did appear briefly, on the long out-of-print Nine to the Universe (1981). This is the full, nearly six-minute take, and another major high point.
A lot of Hendrix fans have had trouble with the many posthumous releases of his music, due to the way they were handled in the early years. Crash Landing was a prime example. The album featured Hendrix master recordings which had been “completed” with overdubs after his departure. The version of the song “Crash Landing” included here is from an April 1969 session, and again spotlights the percussion, and funk. “Inside Out” is Hendrix playing both the guitar and bass, plus the drums of Mitchell. Evidently the personal problems between Hendrix and Redding were so great that he was not invited to this June 1968 session. The song was not included on Electric Ladyland, and is kind of a jam, loosely based around the chord progression of “Purple Haze.”
The slow blues that Hendrix was so adept at is a major feature of “Hey Gypsy Boy.” The song was recorded at the Record Plant in March 1969 with Miles, and a bassist whose name has been lost. Hendrix’s brilliantly tasteful blues runs are compelling. An overdubbed version of the song was issued on Midnight Lightning (1975). This is the original, undoctored, and vastly superior take.
Much like “Let Me Love You,” “Mojo Man” presents Hendrix in a role many of us have never heard him in before, as a sideman. This was obviously a situation in which he was looking to stretch out and play in a different context. The result is a fascinating track. “Mojo Man” came about through his friendship with twins Albert and Arthur Allen, which stretched all the way back to his days as a struggling musician in Harlem. When he heard the song, he decided to add his distinctive touch to it. The result is a powerful piece of R&B, made indispensable with some very special guitar sounds.
“Villanova Junction Blues” is the closer, and a beautiful one at that. It is another song that was first presented to the crowd at Woodstock, yet had been around for some time. The 1:48 track is an incandescent guitar reverie, and was recorded with Cox and Miles in May of 1969.
Jimi Hendrix lived to play his guitar, and loved being in the studio. It is unfortunate that many of his so-called “outtakes” were released in the ‘70s with such little respect for his legacy. Thankfully, Sony Legacy and the Hendrix family have approached things with nothing but respect, and have put together some wonderful collections. To hear the directions his music was taking in the year before his death is a fascinating thing, and People, Hell, and Angels does a marvelous job of capturing it.