Relive Woodstock with new Hendrix release

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

Jimi Hendrix and Woodstock are synonymous. The famous guitarist was one of the largest figures in the music world, and the event attracted the largest crowd, up to that point, to an outdoor American music festival.

For anyone who attended the 1969 Woodstock Music Festival, an unforgettable moment occurred when Hendrix and his Band of Gypsys performed "The Star Spangled Banner." The band had played it in public only one time before.

Picture this scene: The tremendous celebration was drawing to a close after three days. The original crowd of half a million was reduced to about one-tenth that size. Hendrix and his crew were the headline act and insisted on performing last, meaning that they assumed the stage just before dawn in front of a groggy crowd.

Recommended: 1960s plus 50: How well do you know the tumultuous decade? Take the quiz!

When the Hendrix version of the national anthem began - replete with exquisitely layered guitar distortion evoking bombs bursting in air - it seemed to signal the birth of a new nation, an America bound by a vision of peace and love, the swan song of the '60s.

This revised "Star Spangled Banner" was just one of many high points. Hendrix and his five-member band presented a rawly euphoric 140-minute concert bursting with novel sounds.

A truncated recording was issued in 1994 as "Jimi Hendrix: Woodstock," with songs rearranged in a sequence quite different than the actual performance. The new Jimi Hendrix: Live at Woodstock (offered by MCA on CD, cassette, and vinyl) maintains the original sequence. It also offers five previously unreleased songs, more than 30 minutes worth, none of which disappoints.

Given the onslaught of Hendrix reissues, many of which feature previously unreleased material, the question nags: Is another reissue of note to anyone but diehard fans? The answer is happily, Yes! And the timing is perfect, since a 31st-anniversary Woodstock concert is being held July 23-25 in Rome, N.Y.

Listening to the original Hendrix performance offers a fascinating look at the guitar genius as thinker.

The Woodstock concert found the guitarist in transition. He had recently disbanded his former band, the Jimi Hendrix Experience. The Band of Gypsys featured his Experience drummer, Mitch Mitchell, but linked Mitchell with bassist Billy Cox, rhythm guitarist Larry Lee, and two conga drummers (whose contributions aren't audible since they weren't taped properly).

What Hendrix executed on his electric Fender guitar was startling. His blues-drenched playing was raw, jolting, bracing. By the second song, "Hear My Train A Comin'," it's clear that Hendrix appropriated deep Mississippi blues from Muddy Waters. His guitar emitted a staggering range of cries, shouts, sobs, and defiant laughs. Individual notes were stretched, shattered, and recombined in surprising clusters, creating the illusion of ancestral voices wailing through resonant guitar strings.

Most of the 15 songs included are grounded in blues, but Hendrix loved to work at the edges of that tradition. He followed the rock 'n' roll rhythms of Mitchell's drums, but at times seemed to veer into his own private musical world.

The most fascinating example of this experimentation occurrs after the epochal re-creation of Francis Scott Key. He segues from the feedback-drenched anthem to "Purple Haze," a phantasmagoric, psychedelic tune, then to two jams, "Woodstock Improvisation" and "Villanova Junction."

He then launches into strains of traditional Spanish folk music. While far from his most confident performance on record - it's one of the most touching in his oeuvre because it demonstrates his courage to grow beyond rock's parameters. His final interviews made clear that he wanted his music to be a universal spiritual force to better the planet.

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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