[Rating: 4 stars]
It’s October 1968 and the Jimi Hendrix Experience is in the midst of a grueling tour whose punishing one-night-stand schedule ultimately tore the trio apart six months later. However, a three day/six show stint at San Francisco’s Winterland gave Hendrix a chance to not only catch his breath, but explore and experiment on stage instead of sticking to the same stock set list. This four-disc box captures highlights from each of those shows (combining the best of each day’s music and another of extras), spiffs up the 43-year-old sound, and provides us with deeper insight into his influences and enormous talents.
As if to exert his freedom, day one and two kick off with extended fifteen minute jams on the instrumental “Tax Free,” an obscure cover (from Swedish progressive organ/drum duo of Hansson and Karlsson) unfamiliar to the audience and never included on an official studio album (although it did turn up on the posthumous South Saturn Delta collection of outtakes). The improvisational nature of the song shows Hendrix’s weakness for wandering direction (the same can be said for his version of Cream’s “Sunshine of Your Love” on days one and three) but the frequent tempo changes and his uncanny ability to work feedback into guitar solos that shift from fiery to spacey is impressive.
Some tunes such as a riveting “Hear My Train A Comin’,” “Killing Floor,” “Little Wing,” “Manic Depression,” and the rarely performed “Are You Experienced?” only appear once or twice, while others like “Purple Haze” repeat four times. All are slightly different of course, but unless you’re a diehard fan this might be too much of a good thing. Interestingly, Electric Ladyland was released the next week, yet only one tune from that album is included during this stand, a nearly eight minute firestorm on “Voodoo Child (Slight Return).” A 20 minute audio interview on disc four is rough but explores Hendrix’s musical roots and flamboyant stage persona in a freewheeling, often fascinating, straightforward discussion.
Unlike most contemporary acts, Hendrix was willing to push the envelope live, challenging himself and his audience while walking a tightrope between success and failure as he extended songs past their breaking points. It doesn’t always work, but that’s the beauty of improvisation and this set provides a warts and all look at a musician whose excesses, both personal and musical, made him a legend that still provides us with surprises decades after his passing.