The burning question has always been: What would Jimi Hendrix be doing now if he were still alive? Shortly before passing away at age 27, Hendrix was considering a move away from rock 'n' roll psychedelia to explore aspects of jazz and blues. He'd frequently been jamming with progressive jazz drummer Tony Williams, as bootleg recordings attest, and there was talk of making an album.
Alas, that never came to pass, and now fans of Hendrix's revolutionary playing must be content with random album reissues and tribute concerts, such as Experience Hendrix, which came to the Mesa Arts Center Tuesday night.
The show was an interesting mix of talent and style. There were guitarists who played Hendrix music close to original form, and those who strayed far afield in showing up their talents. Was this the result of some Hendrix influence that led them to solo well beyond the original song or just showing off? Given the worst culprit was Kenny Wayne Shepherd, I'd suspect the latter.
Casting that aside, the night was actually a well-conceived tribute to perhaps the greatest guitar player of all time. It was hard to tell the players without a scorecard, and I didn't have one, but familiar faces included Eric Johnson, Zakk Wylde, Doyle Bramhall II, Double Trouble's Chris Layton, Ana Popovic, original Band of Gypsys bassist Billy Cox, Rich Robinson of the Black Crowes, and elder statesman Buddy Guy. A few unnamed guitarists filed sideman roles, and bassists Scott Nelson and Tony Franklin traded off holding down the bottom end (when Cox wasn't there). There were probably a few more players shuffling in and out as well. Again, it was hard to keep track.
What was amazing is that given Hendrix's limited musical output while alive (though plenty more rarities were released after his passing), there was plenty of great material to fill a three-hour set without overlap.
Equally amazing were the various interpretations of Hendrix material. Eric Johnson didn't venture far from Hendrix's original versions of "I Don't Live today, Maybe Tomorrow" and "Crosstown Traffic," though each featured Johnson's distinctive tone and rhythmic intonation.
Zakk Wylde, he of Black Label Society, was clearly the odd man out -- biker denim jacket, long hair, and longer beard -- but also received the greatest applause.
Appearing first on the piano (with Johnson on guitar) for "Are You Experienced?" Wylde switched to guitar for a headbanging threesome that included "Manic Depression" (this reviewer's personal highlight from the evening), "Little Wing," and "Purple Haze." Wylde followed the script closely, though each song took on his metal-toned edge that only served to heighten the tension. Walking through the crowd while playing behind his head, Wylde further incited the crowd to guitar ecstacy, leading to a standing ovation. "God Bless Jimi Hendrix," Wylde exclaimed, walking off stage.
As the night went on, the constant unveiling of Hendrix classics and lesser-known numbers served as a reminder of how distinctive and unique his songcraft was. Few could channel their ideas into music encompassing soul, blues, jazz, and rock with odd time signatures, unexpected changes, unusual vocal harmonies, and imaginative solos in the way Hendrix could. It worked for him then, and clearly, on this night too, for an enraptured audience.
It worked too for the bassists, singers, keyboardists, drummers, and rhythm guitarists who filtered in and out during the evening. These players were charged with following the footsteps of original Hendrix collaborators Mitch Mitchell, Noel Redding, Buddy Miles, and even the present Billy Cox -- all of whom generated important accompaniment for Hendrix's lavish works. All were more than up to the task as rhythms remained tight and creative as necessary.
Following a short break, the scarf-wearing Bramhall came out for a threesome of songs, followed by Shepherd. Despite the evening's theme, Shepherd seemed to think his reason for playing Hendrix songs was to showcase his abilities at soloing. While his playing was tight and strong, it was also over the top and many of the solos went far beyond the tastefulness -- even in his wildest moments -- that Hendrix employed. It was disappointing, though not entirely unexpected.
Blues legend Buddy Guy wrapped up the festivities. After claiming Hendrix -- with whom Guy jammed on a number of occasions -- as the "most creative guitarist I've ever played around," Guy laid down some bluesy chops, including a blistering version of The Leaves' "Hey Joe," a favorite Hendrix cover. A smoldering rendition of "Red House" cemented the evening.
See next page for Critic's Notebook.
Last Night: Experience Hendrix at Mesa Arts Center
Personal Bias: What's not to like about Jimi Hendrix?
Audience: Wide-ranging demographic that surprisingly covered all the bases.
Random Notebook Dump: Jonny Lang was left off the evening, though he's on the lineup. Bonus -- don't need that showoff-y kid.
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