The 25 Best Live Rock Recordings - No. 21: Live At Monterey --OR-- Band Of Gypsies
No. 21 - The Jimi Hendrix Experience - Live At Monterey (Geffen, 1967/2007) --OR-- Jimi Hendrix - Band Of Gypsies (Capitol, 1970)
Sometimes it begins with an innovator and an innovation that must go beyond its origin to be appreciated. In the Spring of 1966, after becoming frustrated with the R&B circuit and limited recording opportunities in America, James Marshall Hendrix left for London, England. There, he met guitarist Noel Redding (who would later transition to bass), and drummer Mitch Mitchell. It was at this time that Jimmy became Jimi and his band, The Jimi Hendrix Experience. This band would extend the language of Eric Clapton and Cream, and all rock power trios a light year.
In October 1966, the Jimi Hendrix Experience played their first concert at the Olympia Theatre in Paris, followed by the recording and release of the single “Hey Joe” backed with Hendrix’s first songwriting effort “Stone Free” in early November. Hendrix and his band quickly established themselves in England, conceiving new material, resurrecting old, and perfecting a combustible finale to his live shows.
Encouraged by their chart success in the United Kingdom, Hendrix and the band assembled a full-length LP. Recorded at De Lane Lea and Olympic Studios, Are You Experienced (Track Records, 1967) took shape and was released on May 12, 1967. Hendrix displayed great breadth in this composing, from the deep blues of “Red House” to the jazz psychedelia of “Third Stone From The Sun.” “Purple Haze,” “Manic Depression,” “The Wind Cries Mary,” “Fire,” and “Foxy Lady” were included on the release, making it a debut comparable with Led Zeppelin’s first release in terms of artistry and popularity for initial offerings.
Barely a month later, Hendrix and his band made their (in)famous appearance at the Monterey Pop Festival, appearing on Sunday evening June 18, 1967, after the Grateful Dead’s set. Here the arc of Hendrix’s experience coalesces with that of Janis Joplin, both artists debuted for American Audiences the same evening, igniting their incandescently short careers that would meet again two years later, bouncing off Woodstock. Hendrix then collided with the 1970 Isle of Wight Festival while Joplin attended her 10th high school class reunion, quipping to the ungrateful, that she was attending “just to jam [her success] up their asses” and to “see all those kids who are still working in gas stations and driving dry-cleaning trucks while I’m making fifty thousand dollars a night.” Hendrix and Joplin took the new decade by storm, flaming out within months of one another before the end of the year.
Hendrix’s appearance at Monterey was one of those seismic events in music where guitar prowess and stagecraft change forever. No one had heard anyone play guitar with the effortless grace and grit of Hendrix. Remember that, at the time, Hendrix was contemporary with Eric Clapton and Cream, Peter Townsend and the Who, Steve Miller (when he was still a guitar player), and Stephen Stills and Neil Young and Buffalo Springfield. Hendrix was into a whole new thing.
Hendrix’s Monterey set consisted of nine songs, five of which drew from Are You Experienced. The band opened with a brutal interpretation of the Howlin’ Wolf classic “Killing Floor” followed by a salacious “Foxy Lady” Central to the performance was Hendrix’s cover of Bob Dylan’s “Like A Rolling Stone,” where the guitarist captured in seven minutes the gestalt and central philosophy of the Summer of Love only to abandon that for the nihilistic carnality of The Troggs’ “Wild Thing,” ending in the Liebestod immolation of one Fender Stratocaster. Hendrix did this all with a nonchalant ease.
James Brown always said of performing, “Kill ‘em and leave.” Hendrix did this at Monterey appearing before the the closing act, the Mama and the Papas, who were left clinging to what was left of the Monterey and the Summer of Love. At the end of his set, Hendrix had exactly 39 months to live, comparable to the car note Janis Joplin had left after her performance. Forever linked as part of the famous 27 Club, Hendrix, and Joplin would “Kill ‘em and leave...”
Before the dawn of “complete releases,” mp3s, and streaming, record companies (remember those) released music in no well-considered or logical manner, save for making money as quickly as possible. Out of that thinking came Historic Performances Recorded at the Monterey International Pop Festival (Reprise, 1970). This LP consisted of a piece of Hendrix’s performance (“Like A Rolling Stone,” “Rock Me Baby, Can You See Me,” and “Wild Thing,”) and all of Otis Redding’s five-song set at the festival. This served as the only record of these performances, incomplete, until the release of more comprehensive volumes, Live at Monterey (Hendrix, 2007) and Captured Live at the Monterey International Pop Festival (Do It Just One More Time!) (Redding, 2019).
Of these abbreviated performances captured on Historic Performances, music writer Robert Christgau, writing in his Consumer Guide ‘70s said of the release:
“Historically, what's happening is two radically different black artists showboating at the nativity of the new white rock audience. Both have performed more subtly and more brilliantly, even on live albums (Live in Europe, the first side of Band of Gypsys) and maybe I'm nostalgic.... in retrospect they seem equally audacious and equally wonderful. As evocative a distillation of the hippie moment in all its hope and contradiction as you'll ever hear.”
That commentary and this recording deserve an article of their own.
In the bat of an eye came Axis: Bold as Love (Track, 1967), with “Little Wing” and “If Six Was Nine,” followed by Electric Ladyland (Reprise, 1968) and “Voodoo Chile” indicating the rapid evolution in the guitarist’s creative path. Hendrix’s career to that point would then be summed and punctuated with the release of Smash Hits (Track, 1968).
On the cusp of the 1970s, Jimi Hendrix brought a new band into New York City’s Fillmore East Auditorium, showing how far he had progressed since his Monterey appearance. Band of Gypsies (Capitol, 1970) sported the new rhythm section of bassist Billy Cox, who had appeared with the guitarist at Woodstock, and drummer Buddy Miles, after having disbanded his band the Buddy Miles Express and completed a stint with Mike Bloomfield’s Electric Flag. The six songs making up the original single LP release of Band of Gypsies were drawn from four shows performed between December 31, 1969, and January 1, 1970 (all shows, 43 tracks) and released in their entirety on Songs For Groovy Children: The Fillmore East Concerts (Sony, 2019)).
The original release reflected the new material the trio was developing to set it apart from the Jimi Hendrix Experience with the inclusion of a burning performance of Miles’ “Changes” to be released on Miles’ Them Changes (Mercury, 1970) released 6 months later and the Miles’ composed “We Gotta Live Together.” Hendrix was turning toward a more funk-oriented sound, blues-infused with elements of jazz. When Band Of Gypsies was released, it promised more daring and innovative music to come. That promise was evident in Hendrix’s anti-war “Machine Gun” and the striking “Message Of Love.”
Hendrix carried this new material to his appearance at the Isle of Wight Festival on August 31, 1970. Hendrix was joined by Mitch Mitchell and Billy Cox, presenting a performance, that while marred by equipment malfunction and Hendrix’s boredom with this old material, indicated the new direction started on the guitarist’s new project, Cry Of Love (Reprise, 1971). Hendrix was ascending to better things musically only to die 18 days later.
The full arc of Hendrix’s career can be experienced between Live At Monterey and Band of Gypsies. These are historic rock performances by a true innovator of the electric guitar and a musical visionary with few peers. They cannot be ignored.