The Last Testament of Jimi Hendrix
Since the Hendrix family gained control of Jimi’s estate a few years back, there has been a welcome avalanche of archival material from the pioneering genius of electric guitar. The most recent release from Dagger Records is the very last concert Jimi Hendrix ever played, at a festival on the Isle of Fehmarn in Germany on 9/6/70. The sound quality is iffy at times, as the recording is a mono audience tape, but the performance is outstanding and puts the last days of Hendrix’s life in a different perspective. For Jimi fans, this is the equivalent of the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls.
This show has even more significance than you might expect, because for years the last recorded document of live Hendrix was the depressing Isle of Wight show from a few days earlier. Jimi’s obviously inebriated performance at that concert made it easy for naysayers to claim that Hendrix had lost it at the end, and was already washed up before his tragic death in London several weeks later.
This new cd makes it clear that the Isle of Wight was just an off night, and Hendrix was delivering the goods live up to the very end of his performing career. The circumstances of the show make it even more remarkable that Jimi played as well as he did that day.
The Isle of Fehmarn festival was a debacle of Altamont-esque proportions by the time Hendrix hit the stage. Christian Berthold, Helmut Ferdinand and Timm Sievers had promoted several small concerts in Germany, but they quickly proved to be in over their heads when it came to organizing a massive festival. A motorcycle gang that had been hired to provide security (how could anybody think that was a good idea?) ran off with part of the gate proceeds and harassed the concertgoers and musicians. The security situation was so bad that the musicians feared for their lives, and several bands refused to play, including Ten Years After and Emerson, Lake and Palmer.
On top of that, the weather was so bad on September 5th that Hendrix’s road crew refused to set up, and the band returned to the hotel for a night of merriment. By the time Hendrix and his new band, comprised of Billy Cox on bass and Mitch Mitchell on drums, showed up to play on the 6th, the soggy and angry crowd booed him and shouted “Hau ab!” (a German expression meaning “Go home” or “get lost”) at the musicians.
However, Jimi takes it all in stride, politely asking the crowd to boo in key before he rips into the increasingly rare “Killing Floor.” This isn’t the equal of the legendary Monterey Pop version that introduced Hendrix to the world, but it’s a good opener, a nice jolt of uptempo positive energy that wins the crowd over instantly. A relatively short, tight version of “Spanish Castle Magic” follows, and it’s clear Jimi has his A game on guitar. Any reasonably fanatical Hendrix fan knows that, like most musicians, some shows were better than others. Here, there is no sloppiness other than the background buzz of the recording, and Jimi’s lines are clear, sharp and imaginative.
Then comes the sequence that really distinguishes this show, and makes it more than a historical curiosity. “All Along the Watchtower” was one of Jimi’s most popular songs, but one he rarely played live, and never as well as he does here. All the different sections and flavors of the famous studio version are replicated beautifully here. The end of “Watchtower” seamlessly flows into “Hey Joe” (an audience request) with a beautiful little jam in between. A great “Joe” fades into some pretty chords, and Jimi glides into a new song, the gorgeous “Hey Baby (New Rising Sun).” This amazing four-song segue is punctuated when the band slams into a rocking version of “Message To Love.” When Jimi leads the band from the dreamy vibe of “Hey Baby” into the intense opening of “Message,” it’s one of many moments on this cd that are worth the price of admission.
There you have it, the glory of Hendrix encapsulated in that short run. Everything from a re-imagining of Dylan, to his first hit, to a hypnotically beautiful new song, back to a rocking version of a Band of Gypsys tune. The whole sequence works on every level, and stands as one of the best 20 minutes of Jimi’s live career.
Hendrix returns to some old favorites next, with a flamboyant version of “Foxey Lady” followed by a ripping “Red House.” The latter may be the best version ever, with soulful and heartfelt vocals and an otherworldly solo where Jimi doesn’t miss a note. Vocally speaking, this may be his finest hour. By the time he brings the song to a close, the crowd roars in approval. Moments like this make it worth enduring the spotty sound quality.
By this point, the band is warmed up and rocking, and they whip into some more new material next. This band had spent much of 1970 recording what was going to be Jimi’s next album, and even if these songs were unfamiliar to the crowd, by now the band knew them inside and out.
“Ezy Rider” is locked in from the start, Mitchell and Cox laying thunderous rhythm behind Jimi as he testifies to the crowd. The end of the song builds into a powerful jam, with Hendrix ripping massive feedback chords. Pure rock and roll power! The ending slams right into “Freedom,” another new tune, and this sounds like a vital band with a very bright future. Brief bass and drum solos ensue before the band settles into a funky, rhythmic version of “Room Full of Mirrors.”
So much for Hendrix being washed up at the end! He plays four songs at this show that were still unreleased, and every single one of them stands up strong to his classics. If he had lived long enough to do proper justice to these tunes in the studio, it’s highly possible that the ensuing album would have been seen as his best.
Of course, you still want to close the show with something more familiar. Unfortunately, one of the few technical glitches in the recording is that they missed the beginning of “Purple Haze” while they were switching tapes. Considering that Jimi had played this song literally hundreds of times, it still sounds raw and powerful. At the end he explodes into a typically incredible post-Haze solo with some fresh licks before slamming into the quintessential live Hendrix show-stopper: “Voodoo Child.”
There are amazing guitar riffs aplenty here, with Hendrix wringing new sounds out of even the most familiar tunes. Like many other songs on this cd, Jimi’s voice has an edge of desperation here that is downright eerie. Several times you get the spooky feeling that he KNOWS this is his last show, because he is singing every line like it could be his last. This is particularly true of these lines
I didn’t mean to take up all your sweet time
I’ll give it right back to you one of these days
If I don’t see you no more in this world
I’ll see you in the next one, and don’t be late
After a massive feedback frenzy brings the song to an end, Hendrix’s final words on stage couldn’t be more appropriate
“Thank you, goodbye, peace.”