It’s easy to forget that, despite the immense and ever-growing official catalog that Jimi Hendrix left behind, his entire professional career happened in the short span of seven years. Some people spend as much time in undergrad as Hendrix did laying waste to the walls between rock, jazz, country and the blues. Naturally, for every Valleys of Neptune there are a half-dozen anthologies like White Collection. The unreleased, posthumous material is a scarce commodity relative to the untold number of alternate takes of his well-traveled core material. There’s still value in the latter, however. Glimpses at the Hendrix that could have been appear on West Coast Seattle Boy, as the considerably slower take on “Fire” would never have been as sustained of a radio force as the version classic-rock disciples have come to know. Then there’s the tribute circuit, and as the success of the Experience Hendrix tour attests, there’s a healthy appetite for straightforward covers wrought from the hands of masters, however short of authentic the overall product may fall.
Though there was no doubting the credentials of the litany of six-string wizards on the second night of the tour’s Spring 2012 edition at the War Memorial Auditorium last Wednesday, the lineup too heavily resembled the cast that made the North Carolina stop in 2010. Not to begrudge excellent performances by Robert Randolph, Jonny Lang, Brad Whitford and Kenny Wayne Shepherd — even if they were merely repeating the same selections from previous tours — but seeing names like Keb’ Mo, David Hidalgo and Cesar Rosas attached to the show, yet not performing was deflating for a repeat goer. One acknowledges that there will be a certain level of gratuity in the performers’ interpretation of Hendrix beforehand, but it’s surprising how tolerance thresholds can diminish upon repeat viewings. For the first-timer, it can be a pretty mind-blowing experience nonetheless.
The formula for these shows is simple: Billy Cox, the last living band member of Hendrix’s two flagship groups, holds down the rhythm (half the show) alongside Stevie Ray Vaughan’s drummer Chris Layton. The army of guitar stars punch in and out, tackling the material in different combinations throughout the night. To open, it was the show’s only southpaw Eric Gales — playing upside down — and Mato Nanji performing “Stone Free” and “Foxy Lady.” There’ll be no flowery verbiage to describe how they conveyed the material, because frankly, there’s enough color contained in the power of suggestion to aptly portray it. Everyone knows what these songs sound like. They weren’t going to catch anyone off guard. Each selection culminated in an act of violent shredding, string bending or whammy-bar flagellation within the context of the original piece. Rinse and repeat.
What was most surprising, however, was how certain pieces were neutered in the name of showmanship. “Manic Depression” was the ideal opportunity for a technical virtuoso like Dweezil Zappa to flex his chops during his criminally short time on stage, but instead he traded the song’s licks with Gales — Zappa on the primary melody and Gales invoking the stinging vibratos while mugging for the crowd. It’s a song about one man’s personal relationship with his music, a song that Jimi played by himself. Surely both Zappa and Gales are capable of the same. A guy beside me, the owner of a fairly notable guitar shop in Southern Pines, openly suggested that he was close to walking out after having already endured the “sponsored by Dunlop pedals” pitch woven into the show. Jimi used Vox.
Of course, it was probably a slight overreaction on his part, but that’s the level of investment some have in preserving the authenticity of Hendrix. He eventually did make good on his threats to leave during Robert Randolph’s cursory take on “Purple Haze” while taking a few shots at Jane Hendrix on the way out. For all of Randolph’s unbridled enthusiasm, anyone who has ever seen him with the Family Band has heard his take, and so did anyone who was at the tour’s 2010 Durham performance.
There were a few nice surprises amidst this set. Randolph led into a funky rendering of “Them Changes” with some pedal-steel chicken-pickin’, referencing Hendrix’s Nashville roots. A pair of Dylan tunes were given the Jimi treatment in “All Along the Watchtower” and “Like A Rolling Stone.” Hendrix’s instrumental version of Cream’s “Sunshine of Your Love” was placed in the loving care of Buddy Guy, the only other person in the show to actually ever play alongside him. Guy’s spots were often muddled, unfortunately. Too many players obscured his clear, dulcet tone on “Red House” to close the show. The high points came when it was just one guitar and one voice; Kenny Wayne Shepherd and Noah Hunt on Earl King’s “Come On (Let the Good Times Roll)” come to mind. It was the perfect marriage of thick, bluesy vocals, unencumbered guitar pyrotechnics and ruthless swagger — all traits Hendrix rolled into a single package.