Sunday, November 29, 2015

Jimi Hendrix: Top 25 Live Guitar Solos

It’s too bad the ticket stub pictured here doesn’t include the name of the performer, but that’s my ticket from when I saw the Jimi Hendrix Experience in Richmond, back at the ripe old age of 13 (just). Needless to say, that concert changed my life (it didn’t hurt that Soft Machine--Robert Wyatt, Kevin Ayers, and Mike Ratledge--opened up for them!).

Here’s my list of my top 25 all-time favorite Jimi Hendrix live guitar solos. In the studio, Hendrix was a perfectionist, and he used studio time to craft and hone his playing until he got exactly what he wanted. Playing live, he was playing in and for the moment. What do I look for in a Hendrix solo? What makes these particular ones excel? All of these solos share a sense of inevitability. Even though you know he’s creating it on the spot, there are usually certain contours predefined by the song, and he’s almost always playing songs he’s done many times before. But each of these solos veers off into unknown territory while sounding completely right.  Hendrix is always in control, and there’s always the transcendent fluidity and tight juggling of tonal shifts that are hallmarks of his sound, but in many of these solos he sounds like they’re almost getting away from him, as he explores alternate sound universes with a sense of abandon and spontaneity.

So, here we go (in chronological order):

1. Wild Thing (7:49) (1967-06-18) Live at Monterey  
Total out, free-form noise. Conceptual, uncompromising.  I’m not sure at what point does he puts the guitar down and feedback takes over before he lights it, but the whole performance is noise art at the highest level. Hendrix lays down the gauntlet: from now on, rock guitar was going to be much more than just a vehicle for melodic 30-second solos.

2. Red House (1967-10-09) (7:50) Paris 1967/San Francisco 1968 

3. I Don’t Live Today (1968-05-18) (4:49) Miami Pop Festival

4. Red House (1968-10-12 2nd show) (9:13) Winterland  (disc 3)

5. Are You Experienced (1968-10-10 1st show) (7:47) Winterland  (disc 4)  
This amazing version starts off with the whole band playing totally free for a little over a minute before breaking into the song proper. The main solo manages to achieve the same kind of backwards-guitar intensity of the studio version without the use of any studio effects.

6. Come On (1969-01-13) (5:37) Live in Cologne  
Here Hendrix doesn't stray too far from the contours of the original studio version, and that’s why this live version is so great. It highlights Hendrix as a virtuoso rock and roll guitarist. Not only did he master (and/or invent/extend/etc.) the blues, r&b, soul, funk, hard rock, metal, and psychedelia, but he also proved himself a master rock and roll player. (See also “Johnny B. Goode” below.)

7. Red House (1969-01-13) (12:30) Live in Cologne

8. Spanish Castle Magic (1969-01-13) (5:00) Live in Cologne

9. Hear My Train a Comin’ (1969-02-24 Albert Hall, London) (10:02) An Evening with the Jimi Hendrix Experience

10. Red House (1969-04-26 L.A. Forum(11:07) Lifelines: The Jimi Hendrix Story

11. Spanish Castle Magic (1969-04-26 L.A. Forum) (11:43) Lifelines: The Jimi Hendrix Story

12. Foxy Lady (1969-04-27 Oakland)  (10:37) Live at the Oakland Coliseum 
Like “Fire,” “Foxy Lady” was one of those songs Hendrix didn’t stretch out too much on; he pretty much stuck to the main outline of the song, with a short, concise solo that didn’t stray too much from the studio version. So when he does stretch it out, as he does here, it makes it that much more special. This is a feedback-drenched solo that flirts with pure noise as note after long note is held and distorted, all the while dramatically building and rocking hard before taking it down.

13. Red House (1969-05-24 San Diego) (13:42) Stages (disc 4); Hendrix In the West (2011 reissue only); The Jimi Hendrix Experience (box set)

14. The Dance (1969-08-10? Tinker Street Cinema, Woodstock, NY) (8:45) (no official release) 
Jamming with local musicians, including jazz drummer Randy Kaye,  two percussionists who would join him at the Woodstock festival: Juma Sultan and Jerry Velez, and unidentified sax and trumpet players, Hendrix stretches out.  He really seems comfortable in this setting, and lets loose with inventive and far-reaching jazz-inflected solos.

15. Beginnings (a.k.a "Jam Back at the House") (1969-08-18 Woodstock) (7:58) Woodstock  
At Woodstock, Hendrix shares guitar duties with Larry Lee (most successfully on this and "Izabella"), but even so, his playing is searing, especially the solo after the drum solo. Here he proves that he didn’t need lighter fluid to set his guitar on fire! The original vinyl version (on Woodstock Two) edits out the drum solo, making it even tighter.

16. Hear My Train a Comin’ (1969-08-18 Woodstock ) (9:16) Woodstock

17. Stone Free (1970-01-01 2nd show) (12:56) Live at the Fillmore East  
Transcendent. Something must have been in the water (or the kool-aid!) for the Band of Gypsys run at the Fillmore. In spite of Buddy Miles’s often leaden drumming, Hendrix soars. (Except for this track, they picked the best stuff for the Capitol album, best both in terms of Buddy Miles’s playing and of Hendrix's solos, as evidenced by the next four selections!)

18. Who Knows (1970-01-01 1st show) (9:32) Band of Gypsys

19. Machine Gun (1970-01-01 1st show) (12:33) Band of Gypsys

20. Power of Soul (1970-01-01 2nd show) (6:53) Band of Gypsys

21. Message of Love (1970-01-01 2nd show)  (5:22) Band of Gypsys

22. Johnny B. Goode (1970-05-30 Berkeley 1st show) (4:26) In the West; Jimi Hendrix Experience (box set)
Hot damn!

23. Hear My Train a Comin’ (1970-05-30 Berkeley 1st show) (11:56) In the West; Blues  
If I could play only one Hendrix solo for aliens, this would be it. Sublime.

24. Villanova Junction (1970-07-30 Maui, late show) (5:28) The Rainbow Bridge Concert  
This one’s a sentimental favorite, since it appeared on the very first bootleg I ever bought, at a Virginia Beach head shop in 1971 or ‘72 (pictured above). This beautiful solo has a mystical quality about it, getting unusually quiet before it incorporates “the Spanish tinge” with a decidedly flamenco-derived flair. Watch it here 

25. Red House (1970-07-30 Maui, late show(6:47) The Rainbow Bridge Concert

So, there you have it. Some of you die-hard Hendrix fans may be wondering why there's no version of Voodoo Chile (Slight Return) on this list. Well, it's because his solos on that song, as incendiary and brilliant as they almost always were, stayed really really close in contour, texture, and development to the studio version from Electric Ladyland. And because none of them, to my ears, really top that one. The versions on Live at Winterland +3 (1968-10-11, 1st show) and the original LP Hendrix In the West (1969-02-24, Albert Hall) come close.

Other contenders bubbling under the top ten
Drivin’ South (9:00) (1968-01-29) Paris Stages (disc 1)
Hear My Train a Comin’ (11:33) (1968-10-10 2nd show) Winterland  (disc 1)
Foxy Lady (1968-10-12 2nd show) Winterland  (disc 4) (6:05)
I Don’t Live Today (6:44) (1969-05-24 San Diego) Kiss the Sky, Hendrix In the West (2011 reissue only)
Foxy Lady  (6:30) (1969-12-31  Fillmore East ) West Coast Seattle Boy (disc 3)

Bonus list: Best overall shows:
Cologne 1969-01-13 Live at Cologne
L.A. Forum 1969-04-26 Lifelines: The Jimi Hendrix Story
San Diego 1969-05-24 Stages
Woodstock 1969-08-18 Woodstock
Fillmore East 1969-12-31/1970-01-01 Band of Gypsys, Live at the Fillmore East
Berkeley 1970-05-30 (both shows) 2nd show on Live at Berkeley

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