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Published: 2016/12/29
by Rob Johnson

"Voodoo Child": How Jimi Hendrix Helped Start the Jam Revolution

Today we revisit this favorite piece from the Jambands.com archives.

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 affected 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 jamband 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 jamband 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 jamband 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 jamband, 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 jambands, 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.

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