Popular music is littered with tragic deaths from its earliest days: Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens and The Big Bopper dying in a plane crash in 1959 and Sam Cooke in 1964. However, it wasn’t until the late 1960s the death toll really began to add up: Brian Jones 1969, Janis Joplin 1970, Jim Morrison 1971 and Jimi Hendrix 1970. While Jones’ career was on the wane at the time, as he’d just been fired by The Rolling Stones, and while both Morrison and Joplin were undoubtedly talented individuals, with their own unique abilities as vocalists and lyricists, it’s Hendrix’s body of work which has stood the test of time the most, continuing to be appreciated and grow in stature.
In the years immediately following Hendrix’s death, large numbers of poorly recorded and mastered records were sold by unscrupulous people looking to cash in on his popularity. Thankfully recent years have seen a concentrated effort from the people at Legacy Recordings and Hendrix’s family to correct this problem through a series of remastered re-issues and previously unreleased recordings. The latest of these to come down the pipe is Jimi Hendrix Experience: Miami Pop Festival. It was supposed to be a weekend long pop music festival put on by the same guys who staged the Woodstock festival a year later, but the second day was rained out.
While Hendrix and The Experience (Mitch Mitchell on drums and Noel Redding on bass) had only recently started to tour America, they had already graduated from being the opening act for the Monkees. (What kind of trip must the guy at Warner Brothers been on who suggested that pairing?) That lasted all of three gigs, and the band went on to headline bigger and bigger venues. By the time they showed up in Miami, they were considered one of the top concert draws in America. Hendrix’s reputation as a genius on the guitar had spread like wildfire. In the pre-Internet days, word of mouth was the most efficient means of communication, and the word had spread that this guy was unreal.
The Experience played a morning and an afternoon set on a Saturday in May of 1968, and were supposed to play another set on the rained out Sunday. The disc contains their complete set list from the opening show plus two tracks from the afternoon show the same day. With only two studio albums under their belt at this time, Are You Experienced and Axis: Bold As Love, they didn’t have a wealth of material to draw upon, so both sets would have been nearly the same. In fact, a quick glance at what’s included on the disc shows a lot of familiar song titles, including “Purple Haze”, “Hey Joe”, “Foxy Lady”, “Fire”, “I Don’t Live Today” and others we’ve long grown to recognize as staples of Hendrix’s live performances.
While Hendrix’s reputation is based on his ability to improvise and his intricate and elaborate solos, this gig shows another side of him and his band. Aside from a 10-minute version of “Red House”, most of the tracks are about the same length as the studio versions of the songs. Yet, as far as I’m concerned, this shows off his abilities just as well as any of his pyrotechnical solos ever did. I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve heard “Purple Haze” and “Hey Joe”. Yet aside from the studio versions of the song, I’ve never heard him play either song the same way twice, and this gig was no different. Each time he manages to put some new flourish or twist into his playing which changes the tune’s flavour or adds a different texture to a line or a verse.
Hearing him play the tracks fairly straight also gives you a new appreciation for his ability to integrate his leads into the rhythm of a song. Most guitar players simply let the beat of the song fall by the wayside when they play their leads, either leaving it to a second guitarist or his bass and drummer to hold things together. Somehow Hendrix is able to do both at the same time. Sure there are times he does the same types of leads as other guitarists, but listen to him as he’s playing the short fills between vocal choruses. He adds ornamentation to almost everything he does, yet somehow does it without it becoming distracting or detrimental to a song’s overall sound. Like the painter who knows when another daub of paint will kill his masterpiece, Hendrix always seemed to know exactly when one more note would have been one too many.
Jimi Hendrix Experience: Miami Pop Festival is the latest in a series of remastered re-issues or previously unreleased material to have been released in the past few years. Available as either a CD or a limited edition double LP, it offers further proof of why Hendrix’s reputation hasn’t diminished over the years. In fact, as more and more material is released for public consumption, not only does it grow, but his place in history is solidified. You may not be able to tell it from simply listening to this recording, but when added to the rest of his catalogue, it grows hard to argue with the statement he was one of the most important guitarists in popular music, and remains so more then 40 years after his death.