Review by Fred Rudofsky
It was the best of concerts and the worst of concerts. Yes, I’m celebrating and exploiting the genius of Charles Dickens in my lead, but that is far less egregious than what too often took place during a sold-out Friday night concert at Albany’s Palace Theatre that paid tribute to the genius of Jimi Hendrix. Call it a paradoxical experience.
NOTE: I make these observations as a fervent admirer of Hendrix’s music and the inspiration he derived from a variety sources such as the blues, soul, folk and Native American culture. I have always viewed him as complete musician, not a wild, hedonistic guitarist like so many still do.
The Experience Hendrix show was the best concert in the sense that it was uplifting to see local support for the music and memory of one of the greatest musicians the world has known – and the song selections were also far more eclectic than what had been the case six years before when the tour touched down in Albany. Yet it was also felt like the worst given that the celebratory nature of the night felt contrived, even exploitative. I even found myself drawing up a wish list of musicians, not just guitarists, that I thought should have been included on the bill (Joanne Shaw Taylor, Cassandra Wilson, Buddy Miller, Trombone Shorty, Michael Hill, Cindy Blackman Santana, Gary Clark, Jr., Steve Winwood, Hamell on Trial – who saw Hendrix play Syracuse in 1968 – to name a few). At times throughout the nearly 3 1/2 hour event, I thought of one of Hendrix’s most prophetic lyrics: “But as far as I know, they may even try to wrap me up in cellophane and try and sell me…” How can anybody celebrate properly a musician, who casts such a long shadow?
Prior to the show, an hour’s worth of clips from the recent “Hear My Train a Comin'” documentary, along with various posthumously-produced videos (including one preposterous “Bleedin’ Heart,” edited to make Isle of Wight-era Jimi Hendrix look like he was headlining Burning Man or Cochella), played on the immense screen behind the stage adorned with stacks of Marshall amplifiers. Janie Hendrix, Jimi’s step-sister and polarizing guardian of his music catalog and image, remarked about the night being an “electric church experience” and hoping the crowd would sing along to songs they recognized.
The welcome sight of drummer Chris Layton (from Stevie Ray Vaughan’s Double Trouble) and Billy Cox, Jimi’s bassist from their army days and later with Band of Gypsys and a revamped Experience, was offset by the jarring image of a right-handed Hendrix impersonator (Dani Robinson) paired up with lefty Stan Skibby. Cox took the vocals on the opener “Stone Free,” while “Machine Gun” featured the guitarists trading verses and solos that tried too hard to replicate the classic live recording at the Fillmore East.
Dweezil Zappa took Robinson’s place for “Freedom,” which featured a strong vocal and bass line by Cox. Unfortunately, Zappa felt compelled to mimic the tone and riffs note-for-note from the original recording. This paint-within-the-lines conservatism was often the case for the son of Frank throughout the evening – he must have locked himself into a permanent “tribute” mode ever since he took Zappa Plays Zappa on the road.
Bassist Scott Nelson took Cox’s place during Ana Popovic’s two-song set. Greeted with whistles and decked out in a skin-tight dress and high heels, the lone female performer on the bill took on one of the most challenging Hendrix compositions, “House Burnin’ Down.” Sadly, her overwrought vocals and meandering solos sabotaged one of Hendrix’s great songs for peace, and Layton’s drum work was merely competent, lacking the vivacity that the lyrical turns and shifting meter demanded. “Can You See Me” fared a bit better.
In contrast, Austin legend Eric Johnson, accompanied by Nelson and Layton, brought passion and imagination to “Power of Soul”; his indelible tone, fluid rhythmic work, and vibrant solos were arguably the highlights of the evening’s first set. Zappa and vocalist Noah Hunt joined in for “Ezy Rider”; again, the former felt content to conjure up Hendrix’s riffs and tones exactly, like they’d been pre-recorded, and the latter came across as a Paul Rodgers wanna-be, competent in an “American Idol”-audition sort of way.
Eric Gales, however, steered things back to spontaneous fun with Johnson on a nonlinear, sublime rendition of “May This Be Love,” singing it warmly and laughing at center stage during the echoing exchange of solos. Doyle Bramhall II next guested on piano – the only time it was played all night – for a fine take of “Are You Experienced,” with Johnson approaching the Marshall stacks a few times to raise the roof with some otherworldly feedback.
Quinn Sullivan, a teenage wunderkind and early Clapton soundalike who has made a name touring with his mentor, Buddy Guy, the past three years, joined Gales and the rhythm section of Layton and Tony Franklin for a solid take on “Purple Haze” but did not remain for a slowed down “Foxey Lady,” which saw Gales roaming the outer stage to close out the first set.
Following a 25-minute intermission made enjoyable by the house system playing seminal cuts by Jimi’s favorite blues artists – by the way, the Hendrix merchandise table was swamped, but the night’s artists had no tables of their own, go figure – Doyle Bramhall II opened the second set with a fine acoustic solo performance of “Hear My Train a Comin’,” bringing a very rural Texas feel to it vocally and rhythmically. Fronting a small combo with fellow Arc Angel Layton on drums and an unidentified second guitarist, Bramhall turned up the volume but didn’t sacrifice the soulfulness for “Angel,” one of Hendrix’s most beloved compositions, and then dipped into the archives for two songs that were never fully realized in Hendrix’s lifetime, “Hey Gypsy Boy” and “Hey Baby (New Rising Sun).” “In From the Storm” closed the medley, but it meant a return of the workmanlike vocalizing by Hunt.
Though he may have found sobriety and religion in the past several years, Jonny Lang hasn’t renounced the bombastic tendencies he exhibits as a performer. With Zappa on lead guitar, “All Along the Watchtower” featured Lang on acoustic rhythm guitar and over-emoting like Michael Bolton in car commercial. Lang sounded like he had caught his foot in a bear trap. Likewise, he strapped on his Telecaster and bludgeoned “The Wind Cries Mary,” “Fire” and “Spanish Castle Magic” (his laughably bizarre scat-singing segment, which went on for a few minutes, may have been the nadir of the evening – even Bramhall on second guitar looked perturbed).
Kenny Wayne Shepherd, accompanied by Layton, Franklin and Hunt got an extended segment to feature songs from Hendrix’s classic Electric Ladyland, for better or worse. Like Zappa, he is technically a strong guitarist but one with little originality to speak of. As much a disciple of Stevie Ray Vaughan as he is of Hendrix, Shepherd lacked the imagination and warm tone of either – he was just loud and flashy, content to bang out riffs and solos in rote manner. Whereas Hendrix’s guitar speaks to the soul, Shepherd’s just yelled at the ears. “Gypsy Eyes,” for example, was all light and no heat, volume without dynamics. Earl King’s “Come On (Let the Good Times Roll)” allowed Shepherd to shred and strut around, but he was incapable of shedding the comparisons any discerning music fan could make to the respective 1968 and 1985 covers that had been done by Hendrix and Vaughan.
“Voodoo Child” and “Voodoo Child (Slight Return)” were delivered in stun mode – the lyrics were shouted by Hunt with little nuance, which was odd given the self-effacing innuendos and fantastical blues imagery inherent to both songs (it was a shame that Bootsy Collins was not on this leg of the tour; he’d have done both songs justice). Back to Shepherd: during the “slight return” segment of the latter song, he shamelessly ripped off the Vaughan rendition from 1985, which interpolated “Power of Soul.” The crowd, though, drank it all up.
Thankfully, redemption arrived but it was too short-lived. As Billy Cox returned to fret the distinctive notes of “Who Knows,” in walked the man himself, Buddy Guy (“Heaven is lying at Buddy Guy’s feet while listening to him play guitar,” Hendrix once said – see YouTube for the proof, Hendrix watching Guy in an NYC club). An ageless wonder (77 going on 35) who is making some of the best music in his 56-year career, Guy got massive applause. The song, however, was a bit of instrumental tease, lasting only a few minutes. “Jimi and I would often talk about Muddy Waters,” Guy remarked wistfully about his late friend prior to a slow, funky take of “Got My Mojo Workin’,” interpolating lyrics with gusto from other blues artists along the way. Decked out in a white cap and pants and polka dot shirt, Guy was visually and sonically riveting, playing a one-handed solo on his blonde Strat while tugging on his right ear as if to say, “You hear that, people? That’s what I’m talking about: the blues!” and then plucking out a hellacious solo with his teeth.
Henry Brown, a decent vocalist, did a spirited rendition of Buddy Miles’s “Them Changes” and “We’ve Got to Live Together”, roaming the lip of the stage like a preacher to rouse the crowd to their feet and encouraging Guy and the Sullivan to trade terse solos. Hunt and Shepherd returned for “Hey Joe,” but Guy stole the song from them, playing with a scalding, menacing tone that just left everybody on stage agape. Thanking the audience, Cox closed the night out with “Red House,” a deep blues that once again featured Guy in prime form, bringing his customary swagger and humor to a song that had been a staple throughout Hendrix’s concert career.
Janie Hendrix came back out, thanked all the musicians and the crowd – and Jimi, of course – and the show was over. As the house lights came up, “Belly Button Window,” one of the last tracks Hendrix recorded at Electric Lady Studios in 1970 before his mysterious death in London at 27, came up on the house system. I laughed to myself as I heard him muse, “What seems to be the fuss out there?/Just what seems to be the hang?”
EXPERIENCE HENDRIX SET LIST
House Burnin’ Down
Can You See Me
Power to Love a.k.a. Power of Soul
May This Be Love
Are You Experienced
Hear My Train a Comin’
Hey Gypsy Boy/ Hey Baby (New Rising Sun)/ In From the Storm
All Along the Watchtower
The Wind Cries Mary
Spanish Castle Magic
Come On (Let the Good Times Roll)
Voodoo Child (Slight Return)
Got My Mojo Workin’/blues medley
Them Changes/ We Got to Live Together