This release features four CD's and DVD footage from a man widely considered to be the greatest guitarist who ever walked the Earth (not that I really believe in "greatest" anything when it comes to art and music). It is also a deliberate attempt to emphasize Hendrix’s overlooked R&B, soul and jazz roots. So what's not to like? This must be the Holy Grail. Yes? Everyone should run out and get this, right? Not necessarily.
First off let me say what this release isn't. Unlike say How the West was Won by Led Zeppelin or Agharta by Miles Davis this is emphatically NOT a cohesive set of concert recordings or a fabled lost album.
This release will probably be of interest primarily to hardcore Hendrix fans or obsessive collectors. For the first person the desirability of this may depend on price. It opened at $69 on Amazon and is now fluctuating between $47 and $53. The stripped down version can be had for between $13 and $20.
The second type of person obviously will buy it no matter what I write but he/she should at least pick it up used. Ok, enough caution, what about the music?
This features Hendrix as a sideman to sixties era Black American rock-n-roll/R&B stars. If you happen to like this sort of music (and I do) then you will enjoy hearing Hendrix play on cuts by Little Richard, The Isley Brothers, Don Covay, Rosa Lee Brooks, King Curtis and more. If, on the other hand, you don't like this sort of old school R&B this CD may not impress. Standouts include an intense Hendrix solo on the Isley Brothers' "Have you ever been disappointed" that is reminiscent of Duane Allman's later solo on "Please lend me a dime" and Hendrix's riff on Ray Sharpe's "Help me Get the Feeling", which was later sold to Atlantic, scrubbed of Hendrix's guitar and reworked by Aretha Franklin into "Save Me".
This disc focuses on Hendrix's early work with The Experience. Virtually everything here has been released before. These are alternate or acoustic versions and solo arrangements. Hendrix had a very heavy Dylan influence. This shows in his fanciful cover of "Tears of Rage", which almost redeems the entire release all by itself. Also included are an acoustic guitar rendition of "1983", "Little One" (not Little Wing) and a guitar/harmonica version of "Hear my Train A-coming".
This CD covers the transition from the Experience to the Band of Gypsys or as I like to think of it from a frustrated guitarist trying and failing to play bass (Noel Redding) to an actual bassist (Billy Cox) who understood where the “One” was. Noel Redding couldn't get groove if you tied him to a train track. With Cox on bass and Miles on drums, Hendrix speeds toward funk and soul. A few cuts sound eerily like Sly Stone without a horn section. The Hendrix connection to groups like P-Funk is obvious.
There are more unreleased items here. This includes "Hear my Freedom" with Lee Michaels on organ, live concerts with the Experience, and a 20 minute jam with jazz organist Larry Young.
Unfortunately this also includes "Mastermind" with Hendrix buddy Larry Lee on rhythm guitar and lead vocals. Sorry Mr. Lee but if I'm going to criticize Redding for being allergic to holding down the bottom, I have to take you to task being a bad singer. You need to be in the proper key and stay in tune. Yikes. This was the only cut that I stopped listening to and pressed next.
This last disc is mostly Band of Gypsys and then the later reconstituted band with Cox and Mitchell and without Buddy Miles.
The cd consists of projects Hendrix was working on before he passed away. This includes a long version of "Everlasting First", a song with Love frontman Arthur Lee on vocals. Standouts include "Suddenly November Morning", "Peter Gunn" and "All God's Children". This is the good stuff.
Janie Hendrix, (Hendrix's sister and the executor of his estate) has said there's enough unreleased material to produce at least one new CD every 12-18 months for the next decade. While I admit that's good for her bank account I wish that they'd just put out the quality stuff now. There's actually a live Band of Gypsys studio jam that I have on cassette tape (taped off radio) as well as an Experience concert in Germany that I was hoping would be on this release. Oh well. Overall this was just barely worth it. I had heard too much of it before. I would advise others to buy it at a DEEP discount-IF you are a rabid Hendrix fanatic. If you're not, don't spend your money on this. But do pick up Band of Gypsys, not least for Hendrix’s improv on Auld Lang Syne , Who Knows and most especially his antiwar masterpiece Machine Gun . Unfortunately that last song is all too relevant today.