Bold As Love: How Jimi Hendrix Helped Start the Jam Revolution
I wasn't into music that much when I was a kid. My parents had pretty good taste, and I got exposed to a lot of great sounds, like James Brown and Bob Marley, that I still listen to today. My dad even played saxophone in a band when he was younger, and my parents both love to dance more than anything in the world, so music was always around me as a child. Even so, I preferred to spend most of my time with my nose buried in books.
By the time I was 14, my friends were as music-crazed as the average teen, and their constant talk of music began to pique my interest. The first few albums I bought with my own money were cheesy pop music of the time that aren’t worth mentioning. But I had been hearing a lot about this guy named Jimi Hendrix…
My parents are pretty cool, but they ain’t no hippies, and Jimi Hendrix is just a little out of their musical spectrum, like one of those whistles that only dogs can hear. I never heard much of his music, except maybe "Purple Haze" or "Fire" on FM radio. However, so many people raved about how great he was, I decided to check it out for myself and bought an album called The Essential Jimi Hendrix. The first song on the album was called Are You Experienced?
I quickly realized that in my case, the answer was a resounding NO. I listened in disbelief about ten times in a row before I even got to the second song on the album. I was just listening and rewinding, listening and rewinding. By the time I had processed it, I would never be the same. It was like every epiphany in that it cannot be relayed in words without diluting the experience, but let’s just say that music took on a new meaning to me that day. (Attention cynics: I was stone cold sober and would remain so for another 3 and a half years) There was some primal power in Hendrix’s music that effected me in a way that I didn’t think music was capable of, and I still feel that power when I listen to Jimi’s music today.
Now, many people have written whole books about Jimi Hendrix and his music, so I am not writing this just to say that Hendrix is the man. All sentient beings throughout the galaxy consider this to be common knowledge. However, I do think that there is a sort of missing link in the public consciousness between Jimi and the jam band movement. I consider it to be a great injustice that in some circles, my favorite musician is more likely to be lumped in with Eddie Van Halen or Steve Vai than with Trey Anastasio.
Sure, Jimi deserves a lot of credit for creating heavy metal, and a lot of his music sounds very aggressive to laid-back hippie types. Even 32 years later, listening to "Machine Gun" with a head full of acid is only for the brave at heart.. But Jimi’s improvisational spirit, his free-flowing live shows, his obsession with taping, and his "Electric Church" concept of music as ritual all point to Hendrix as a tragically overlooked godfather to the jam band scene. I come before you today to reclaim his legacy for jam-loving hippies everywhere.
THE IMPROV MASTER
The principle at the heart of all jam-oriented music is spontaneity, and Hendrix is renowned for his unstoppable creativity. A listen to the long version of "Voodoo Chile" from Electric Ladyland is quite instructive. Starting from a deep blues jam, Jimi and Stevie Winwood build and build and build until Jimi goes screaming off into a medieval-sounding modal riff, with Winwood matching every lick. After a dizzying peak, the music glides effortlessly back into the primal blues groove.
This passage shows Jimi creating new music spontaneously, on the fly, without a net, in the greatest jam band tradition. The telepathic rapport between Hendrix and Winwood and the staggering intensity of the peak show jamming at its best. This jam is exactly the sort of thing that Dead fans or Phish fans will attend several shows in the hope of seeing, and Hendrix used to deliver the goods with frightening frequency. (Or is that frightening frequencies? Hmm…) This is the kind of jam Phish fans call a Type II, meaning that it doesn’t merely consist of soloing over the basic Voodoo Chile changes, but instead creates a whole new musical landscape from scratch. It’s risky territory, but when it works it is the very essence of true improvisation.
Some will protest that Hendrix’s genius was in his songs, not his jams. I would argue that, like the Dead or Phish, it is the combination of the two that is so special. Make no mistake, Jimi was a songwriting dynamo who wrote nearly 100 songs in just a few short years, and he had a lot of material to cover in any given concert. But even so, at almost every show he would bust out of the frame for a few minutes and create something totally original on the spot. This insatiable musical adventurousness can be summed up by a bumper sticker that you have probably seen if you’ve ever been to a Dead or Phish show: "Not All Who Wander Are Lost."
THE SEGUE KING
There is a lot of talk about what exactly constitutes a jam band, with many conflicting theories flying around. One musical convention that ties together bands as diverse as Phish, The Meters, and Widespread Panic is the segue. Nothing warms a jam-fan’s heart like hearing a well-executed transition from one song to another, and the Dead in particular built much of their reputation as a live band on their ability to construct long, free-flowing sets where the songs melted into one another. However, if you are mainly familiar with Hendrix’s studio recordings, you might not know that he was an early master of segues, and few bands can match him for tightness and unpredictability.
Like most jam bands, Hendrix had certain songs that were often used as platforms for open-ended jams that could sometimes end up in other songs. Hendrix’s version of a Dark Star or Tweezer, a song where literally anything could happen, was Voodoo Child. A classic example comes from the April 26, 1969 show at the Los Angeles Forum. Jimi takes Voodoo Child on a journey that looks like this:
Voodoo Child>Drum Solo>Sunshine of Your Love>SWLABR>Sunshine>Voodoo Child
This massive "sandwich jam" has all the attributes that make segue jams great, and the format is familiar to any Dead or Phish fan. The Experience is so tight at this show that they seem to be capable of anything, and their ability to change directions at a moment’s notice is impressive. The return to Sunshine Of Your Love is explosive, but the fun has only begun. Predictably, the crowd goes wild when the band returns to Voodoo Child for the big finish, and you can easily imagine thousands of people turning to their friends and saying that beloved jam-band phrase "Dude, I forgot we were even IN this song!"
Voodoo Child was also the launching pad for arguably the greatest segue sequence in the history of rock music. Hendrix was the closing act at Woodstock, and although many people had already left, those who remained got a show for the ages, highlighted by the following magnificent half-hour:
Voodoo Child>Stepping Stone>Voodoo Child>Star Spangled Banner>Purple Haze>Woodstock Improvisations>Villanova Junction Blues
It doesn’t get any better than this, people. At one point in Voodoo Child, Jimi tells the audience "You can leave if you want, we’re just jamming, that’s all." If any of them did, they missed the jam of a lifetime. Voodoo Child’s big finish just keeps building and growing until it finally explodes into the opening notes of Star Spangled Banner, one of the best and most famous segues of all time. But there’s more, as the National Anthem fades into the Psychedelic Anthem, Purple Haze, whose ending solo spirals out of control into a Spanish/Arabian solo piece that is utterly unlike anything else Hendrix ever played. This intergalactic sojourn is finally brought back down to Earth by a heart-rending version of Villanova Junction Blues, one of Jimi’s most soulful pieces of music. In 30 short minutes, Hendrix spanned the whole spectrum of music without stopping once. The audience was floored, and Jimi set a whole new standard for improvisational expression.
O.T. —ORIGINAL TAPER
If there is one personality that is fairly unique to the jamband culture, it is the taper. These audiophiles spend lots of time and money capturing the ineffable so that those fleeting moments of Eternity found at good live shows can be savored over and over again. They fret about the best possible setup of mikes and gear, constantly in pursuit of the perfect sound. Hendrix could be their patron saint. By all accounts, Jimi Hendrix was downright fanatical about recording virtually everything he ever played, which is why "new" music of his continues to be released over 30 years after his death. The same obsessive documentation fetish will allow the Dead and Phish to continue releasing shows "From the Vault" until the sun grows cold and dies, and we are all richer for it.
Unfortunately, for most of the last 31 years, Hendrix’s estate has been in the hands of money-grubbing music executive types who were more interested in releasing Greatest Hits albums than in documenting Jimi’s live output. Since the Hendrix family gained control of Jimi’s music, they have released some great stuff, including a single CD from the Woodstock show and a great 2-CD set called "Hendrix Live At The Fillmore East" that is culled from the same shows that produced the Band of Gypsys album. But there is so much more! I offer a humble list of 5 shows that are worthy of the Vault treatment.
1) Los Angeles Forum, 4/26/69—Possibly the greatest show Jimi ever played, and not just for the Voodoo Child/Sunshine of Your Love sandwich mentioned before. Mind-melting versions of Tax Free and Spanish Castle Magic are every bit as good. Portions of this were included on the out-of-print Lifelines box set, but the whole thing has never been released in its entirety.
2) Maui, Hawaii, 7/30/70—The famous Rainbow Bridge show with hundreds of tripping freaks in a volcano in Hawaii. Besides the coolest venue Jimi ever played, this show features right-on versions of some of Hendrix’s most overlooked material. Tunes like In From The Storm and Freedom stand up well to classics like Voodoo Child and Stone Free, both of which are awesome. The highlight may be yet another segue-fest, Dolly Dagger>Villanova Junction Blues>Jam>Ezy Rider. This show proves that Hendrix was kicking ass up to the very end.
3) Royal Albert Hall, London, February 1969—A couple of shows at this legendary venue were filmed for a movie called "Experience." Both the movie and the soundtrack are out of print, but I remember my old vinyl copy of the soundtrack well. Room Full Of Mirrors featured Chris Wood of Traffic on flute, and a really great version of Bleeding Heart stood out as well. I’m sure there are more nuggets from this run that deserve to be heard.
4) San Diego Sports Arena, 5/24/69—Songs from this show appeared on the Stages box set, Hendrix In The West, and the Kiss The Sky anthology. With all of the above out of print, the time has come to release the whole show. I Don’t Live Today and Red House are possibly the best versions of these songs, truly awe-inspiring.
5) Fillmore Auditorium, San Francisco, 2/1/68—The last show Jimi played at the original Fillmore before he became too big for such venues. This must have been a very bluesy show, as Hendrix shared the bill with John Mayall and Albert King. Hendrix also shared the bill with Jefferson Airplane from June 20-25, 1967. Most shows at the Fillmore were taped, so there is a good chance that high quality copies of these shows exist somewhere. If these early shows were properly released, they would reveal a lot about the formative stages of Hendrix’s genius.
HIGH PRIEST OF THE ELECTRIC CHURCH
Dick Cavett: I have heard you use the phrase "Electric Church" as an ambition you have. Now, are you speaking metaphorically or poetically, or do you really want to..?
Jimi Hendrix: Well, it’s just a belief I have, you know? We play electric guitars, and everything is electrified nowadays, so if the belief comes into a person through electricity…that’s why we play so loud! We play for our music to go into the soul of a person and wake up something that’s sleeping there. There are so many sleeping people nowadays!
Perhaps the most important connection between Jimi Hendrix and the jam band movement is their common belief in the spiritual power of music. Jimi was fond of referring to his shows as an "Electric Church." When he played outside, he would refer to the shows as "Sky Church." The same idealistic belief in the sacred power of music to transform consciousness is shared by Deadheads, Phishheads, Allman Brothers fans, Sector 9 fans. Virtually any band that fits in the jamband category, by definition, has fans that look at each show as a religious experience.
To be more specific, Hendrix’s Rainbow Bridge show, where an announcer urged the crowd to recognize themselves as "cells in the body of the planetary being," shares a strong resonance with Phish’s Big Cypress Y2K extravaganza. Both took place in beautiful, sacred places that are about as different from concert halls as possible. Both produced some of the most remarkable music of the artists’ careers. And both were overtly spiritual in tone. Phish actually considered a Hawaiian site for Y2K, making the connnection that much stronger.
Now, don’t get me wrong, I’m not so naive that I think all jambands and their fans are strictly devoted to higher consciousness. A lot of the time, they are just strictly devoted to getting high. But even so, there is a truly religious devotion that surrounds this scene. Sector 9’s name comes from Mayan cosmology, and they go to great lengths to align each show with whatever spiritual forces are strong on that day. I have read an interview with Trey Anastasio where he talks about having a religious experience at a Dead show in Hartford that changed his life. The Allman Brothers’ concept of "The Brotherhood" even sounds like a religious order.
And that’s why I love this scene so much, and love this kind of music so much. It means something, dammit! It’s not just some Top 40 pap put together for no reason other than making some producer fat and rich. It is music that is made in the name of harmony and unity, and that comes through in the music and is reflected in the people who make up the scene. The feeling of true kinship and community that is felt at a really good show is what most religions are all about: Togetherness.
This is also extremely creative music, and part of Jimi’s legacy is that willingness to try new things and break new ground. When Hendrix first started, many people scoffed in disbelief at his revolutionary techniques, claiming that he was just "out of tune." Many jam bands face similar criticism from people who automatically dismiss anything that doesn’t follow conventional wisdom.
We know better, though. In any art form, there can only be progress when the rules of the game itself are challenged. Hendrix knew that, and young bands like Sector 9, The New Deal, and the Disco Biscuits have proved it again with their "trance fusion" sound. Whether it's the Disco Biscuits jamming to Akira or Phish jamming from midnight to dawn, Jimi is looking down and smiling, because we are ALL Bold