Review: “West Coast Seattle Boy: The Jimi Hendrix Anthology”
Very few artists have recorded as much worthwhile material in as short a time period as Jimi Hendrix. Beginning his solo career in 1966, by the time of his death in in September 1970 Hendrix had already released four albums that can only be described as classics and had wowed audiences throughout the United States and Europe. When he died, he left a vast archive of recordings in varying degrees of completion that have been the source of countless albums beginning with 1971’s Cry of Love and going through to Valleys of Neptune from earlier this year. While the early posthumous albums have been successful among fans and collectors, they have also been harshly criticized in some circles for providing only abbreviated snippets of longer songs and containing controversial overdubs. Enter West Coast Seattle Boy, the new four-CD and one-DVD box set from Legacy and Experience Hendrix which will be released on November 16. The set attempts to correct the aforementioned problem while also providing fans with alternate takes of released material, live recordings, studio jams, home demos, and early recordings showing Jimi’s prowess as a backup musician.
It is the latter which comprises the set’s first disc. This disc displays Hendrix backing up several soul and R&B artists, most notably Little Richard and the Isley Brothers. While the Isley Brothers tracks are a far cry from the legendary group’s best work, the numbers by Little Richard will offer those listeners only familiar with his seminal ’50s work a completely different, and decidedly more soulful, view of the man’s music. Even without Jimi, this disc would make a fine stand-alone collection of mid-’60s R&B and it is the numbers by artists like Ray Sharpe, Rosa Lee Brooks, and Jimmy Norman that truly make up the heart of the disc. In fact, there are certain songs in which Hendrix’s presence is nearly indiscernible and you could be listening to any good studio guitarist. But there are others where he gets a brief moment in the spotlight and we know from the first notes that it can’t be anyone else.
This initial disc may be the most interesting to fans of forgotten ’60s recordings, but the least interesting to Hendrix aficionados. Whichever category you fit into, it is a good look at the beginning of Hendrix’s career and a glimpse into why he was so great in the first place. Unlike the majority of today’s self-proclaimed “guitar gods,” Hendrix paid his dues on the road and in the studio with seasoned veterans prior to striking it out on his own and it is that experience that made his playing among the best ever.
The second disc comes closer to the Jimi we all know and love, kicking off with an alternate take of the classic rock staple “Fire” before delving into lesser-known material. Among this material is “Little One,” an instrumental recorded for Electric Ladyland featuring Dave Mason on sitar, a hard rock comedy track titled “Calling All the Devil’s Children,” which finds Hendrix portraying a minister, and a wonderful alternate take of “Mr. Bad Luck.” Also included are the initial backing tracks of “Are You Experienced” and a slower version of “Castles Made of Sand” featuring only Jimi and drummer Mitch Mitchell. These numbers were very interesting to me and displayed beyond any doubt how far ahead of his time Hendrix really was. In fact, these backing tracks aren’t too far detached from what a new generation of Seattle musicians would be doing a few decades later when they created grunge.
The best parts of disc two, though, are the six demos Hendrix recorded solo inside his hotel room in March 1968. While I had long suspected that “Long Hot Summer Night” would make a damn good folk song, I was surprised that “1983 (A Merman I Shall Turn to Be)” also makes the transition very well. Neither are as good as the finished studio versions, of course, but that is to be expected. Perhaps the best among these demos are a highly emotional cover of Dylan’s “Tears of Rage” and Jimi’s own “My Friend,” which quite possibly ranks as his best song lyrically.
Disc three is something of a mixed bag, although the good far outweighs the unnecessary. Near the beginning of the disc, the listener is treated to a seemingly spontaneous medley of “Room Full of Mirrors” and “Shame, Shame, Shame” and an energetic cover of Big Mama Thornton’s “Hound Dog Blues.” We also hear several very promising unreleased tracks such as the metal-like “Messenger,” the Curtis Mayfield-inspired “Mastermind” which features Billy Cox on lead vocals, and an instrumental simply titled “Untitled Basic Track.” But just as the disc shows glimpses of Hendrix at his best in the studio, it also displays the worst of his musical excesses. A case in point is the 20-minute-plus jam with jazz organist Larry Young that shows flashes of brilliance at points, but for the most part, is simply aimless jamming.
The third disc also contains several live recordings, including a pre-Woodstock version of “The Star-Spangled Banner”/”Purple Haze” medley and three outtakes from the legendary Band of Gypsys shows on New Years Eve ’69 that extends onto to the next disc. While the former bunch do not measure up to the Woodstock versions, they still make for great listening and the latter numbers once again reiterate the need for a set of the complete Band of Gypsys recordings. The best among these is a scorching fourteen-minute version of “Stone Free” that opens the collection’s final disc.
The remainder of the final disc explores the direction Hendrix was heading in his final months. The best tune on the disc, and perhaps the entire set, is the beautiful instrumental “Burning Desire” which is hard-rocking in its brilliant delivery and jazz-like in its complexity. It is truly difficult to understand why this track has not been released sooner. The great material continues with the blues-rocker “Lonely Avenue,” and the uncompleted “All God’s Children.” We also get to hear the last instance of Jimi as a backup musician as he adds guitar to Arthur Lee and Love’s “Everlasting First,” released here for the first time in it’s complete form. The set ends with an acoustic home demo of “Suddenly November Morning” from the legendary “Black Gold” sessions. The tune ranks as one of the box’s most intriguing numbers and one which had the potential to be a true classic.
The fourth disc was my personal favorite and while the songs on it were never completed and therefore can’t warrant a comparison to Jimi’s four original albums, having listened to the entire set and hearing the alternate takes of classic numbers and the way Hendrix worked in the studio, it is hard to not draw the conclusion that he was just starting to reach his peak in the late summer of 1970. While we will never know what Hendrix would have released in ’71, I am almost certain that it would have been his masterpiece.
The music on the four discs enhanced my already immense level of respect for Hendrix’s music and, likewise, the DVD which accompanies the set enhanced my respect for Hendrix as a person. The documentary Voodoo Child features photographs and footage of Jimi as funk legend Bootsy Collins narrates, allowing Hendrix to “speak” in his own words through interviews and never-before-seen writings. The film shows a man confident in his talents but, at the same time, very humble regarding his success. I would highly recommend the DVD to anybody who likes Hendrix’s music and wants to know more about the man behind it.
In addition, the packaging here is fantastic with over 50 pages of liner notes and great pictures on nearly every page.
The biggest question is whether this set is meant for the completist or the casual fan. I would actually say that the largely successful intention was to win over both camps. While the completist will certainly want to have it in their collection, there is also surprisingly little here that wouldn’t also appeal to those with minimal knowledge of Jimi’s posthumous catalog. This isn’t the place for beginners to start their collection by any means, but it is something they will want to pick up somewhere along the way. This set is perhaps the most personal glimpse yet of Jimi in the studio and also offers a fascinating view of how his music continued to evolve until his tragic death.