Sunday, March 31, 2013

One foot in the grave

If the arrival of David Bowie's new album seemed unlikely, given concerns he was in the throes of terminal illness, the release of a new album from Jimi Hendrix is even more improbable, seeing as he's actually been dead since 1970.

Still, it being Easter Sunday and all, it seems slightly fitting to draw attention to the fact that the ephemeral guitar legend has in fact released a brand new record, more or less.

People, Hell & Angels is, clearly, posthumous. I have seen Hendrix's memorial slab in a suburban Seattle cemetery and was pretty convinced he was lying beneath it.

It is, though a collection of 12 tracks 'rescued' from the vast vaults of material curated over by the Hendrix family corporation, and the latest of several albums and films that have been released in recent years to further mine the guitarist's brief but extraordinarily prolific career.

Thus, this isn't the first album Hendrix rarities to be released and I doubt it will be the last, either, considering that he shuffled off this mortal coil with hundreds of hours of material in the vaults, some of it experiments and most of it even now yet to see the light of day.

The trouble with posthumous releases is that often don't quite deliver on what they promise. When The Beatles released Free As A Bird in 1995 there was a certain disappointment at the development of an old Lennon home demo into a latter day Beatles single, over-produced by Jeff Lynne, no to mention the thought that it was a somewhat cynical attempt to shift more copies of the Anthology box set.

People, Hell & Angels is, thankfully, nothing like that. It does, inevitably, sound like a collection of offcuts, but that doesn't make it bad - this is still Jimi Hendrix. But after four decades, you can't help wondering if these tracks had been unreleased for a reason.

It should also be pointed out that many of the tracks on the album have appeared in some form previously: Earth Blues was included on a posthumous 1997 release, having been originally recorded for a planned fourth album by the Experience; Somewhere was on the sumptuous purple box set, The Jimi Hendrix Experience, 13 years ago;  and Bleeding HeartIzabella, Easy Blues, Crash Landing and Gypsy Boy have all appeared on other posthumous albums. Indeed, only Let Me Move You is actually properly 'new',

So that's the 'picky' bit. The fact remains, this is a Jimi Hendrix record and is therefore very good, with pristine production that belies the 45 years most of the tracks have been sitting in storage somewhere.

Released to sort of coincide with what would have been Hendrix's 70th birthday last November, People, Hell & Angels' recordings all date back to an experimental phase in the guitarist's career between 1968 and 1969 when he was experimenting with different musicians and musical textures.

Having released Electric Ladyland, Hendrix was itching to get a fourth album under his belt, in particular breaking some of the restraints he'd felt the Experience format had placed on him. The restless culture of the time was also encroaching on his own restlessness, and the wider circle of musicians playing on these sessions brought about a noticeably broader sound.

Organ, brass, even Harlem funk, such as Mojo Man (with Albert Allen on vocals) indicate a magpie-like Hendrix picking away at the shiniest baubles of the scenes he engaged with in New York. There are nods, too, to Stax, with the jam Let Me Love You featuring legendary bandleader Lonnie Youngblood on vocals and Mar-Kays-style sax workouts, so much so that Hendrix's guitar is almost reduced to a supporting player.

With so much of Hendrix's career, life and, of course, demise, pegged to London, there's also a taste of the influences the British capital was bringing to bear on the guitarist, with echoes of Cream and Eric Clapton's next project, Blind Faith, coming through on Earth Blues.

There is no shortage, either, of the blues that drew so much initial attention to Hendrix. Izabella chops about at a frenetic pace, while Easy Blues finds Hendrix swinging along, cabaret style, with his Stratocaster playfully sparring with the jazzy backing. Here My Train A Comin' is a looping, near-six-minute blues stomp, while Somewhere - featuring Stephen Stills on bass - takes the guitarist into woozy, pleasantly sleazy territory, his wah-wah pedal providing distinct Hendrix phrasing to a sweaty, club-like workout.

Hendrix may have been trying to go in different directions with the tracks on this album, but in truth doesn't stray too far. There is plenty of value and enjoyment to be had, however. It might feel like you've stumbled in on an extended jam session (which, let's face it, didn't bother Neil Young's Psychedelic Pill last year), but that is what makes listening to Hendrix - posthumously and 40 years on - still such an unbridled fun.

And a little frustrating. To think that, prior to these sessions, it had only been two years before that Keith Richards' then-girlfriend, Linda Keith, had heard Hendrix playing in a New York club, and, eventually via Richards and Rolling Stones manager Andrew Loog Oldham, the guitarist found his way into Chas Chandler's management, that the Jimi Hendrix we have come to revere came into being.

People, Hell & Angels, then, performs a somewhat superfluous task in perpetuating the Hendrix legend.  He was, simply, the most gifted guitarist in history, and few people would ever challenge that assessment. This is an album for completists, for sure, but do not dismiss it as a curious snapshot of what Jimi Hendrix was trying to do next before he died at the age of 27 in a Notting Hill flat, having overdosed on barbiturates.

When I visited Hendrix's grave in Renton, Washington, in 1998, it was a simple slab, lying next to his father's plot, and featuring the outline of a Stratocaster and a simple inscription. I believe there's a more elaborate gazebo-type construction there now, to which Japanese tourists flock by the busload, but when I was there that drizzly Sunday morning, the only other person in the cemetery was a solitary widow tending the grave of her husband.

The point is, that simple inscription reminded me how mercurial Hendrix was in life, but what an incredible body of work he crammed into the three years he was a recording artist. The fact that thousands of hours lie somewhere is mind boggling.

Having stood graveside that Sunday, it is weird to be able to go into a record shop today and buy a new album from Jimi Hendrix. But is is also a privilege.

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