Two decades ago, new albums and box sets from The Jimi Hendrix Experience, Little Feat, Sparks and others were spinning away in my portable CD player. Here’s what I had to say about them back then (with some minor editing):
The Jimi Hendrix Experience
The Jimi Hendrix Experience
It’s easy to take Jimi Hendrix for granted. Over the years, we’ve all become way too familiar with his music. We’ve heard Purple Haze and Foxey Lady a million times. We’ve watched repeatedly as he sets fire to that Strat and Monterey, plays with his teeth and reinvents the Star Spangled Banner at Woodstock. We’ve seen the interviews, the rockumentaries, the tributes. How much more is there to know about Jimi?
Well, quite a bit, actually. As fans know, Hendrix was one of the most-recorded performers in history. Every gig, studio date and jam session seems to have been captured on tape. And since his untimely, rock-cliche death decades ago, that material has dribbled out in a steady stream of quickie, cash-in releases. Some were authorized. Most are bootlegs. Few put the material in context or shed light on the reality behind the myth.
The lavish new box set The Jimi Hendrix Experience — the latest high-quality release from the Hendrix clan — finally gets it right. A four-CD collection of obscure and hard-to-find tracks, this isn’t just another greatest-hits career chronology. If anything, its 56 tracks provide an alternate history of Jimi, taking us behind the scenes in the studio and on stage at shows most casual fans haven’t heard. In doing so, it achieves what no other compilation has — it gives you a new appreciation for Hendrix.
Case in point: Purple Haze. At first blush, the version heard here — an alternate take from the same session that produced the iconic track — sounds like the one we’ve all memorized. Then little differences crop up: A choppier guitar line, a looser vocal delivery, a new solo, a spacy, “freak-out” ending with drummer Mitch Mitchell and bassist Noel Redding chanting the title like Gregorian monks. Suddenly, you’re hearing the song — and Hendrix — with fresh ears. And you are realizing that Jimi’s sound didn’t just spring fully formed — it evolved with the help of his bandmates, along with manager-producer Chas Chandler and engineer Eddie Kramer.
Many of Hendrix’s best-loved tunes are presented in similar embryonic states. Some, like Hey Joe and Foxey Lady, differ only slightly from their more famous cousins. Others, like Burning of the Midnight Lamp — heard in its original incarnation as a harpsichord instrumental — are less recognizable, with different arrangements, partial vocals and studio chatter that provide insight into that collaborative process. Also included are studio versions of tracks more familiar in their live form, like The Star Spangled Banner (a multi-tracked blanket of glorious synth-like guitars) and Message to Love (a funky, proto-disco groove with female backup vocalists). They work just as well, if not better as studio tracks than they did in a concert setting.
Of course, those who prefer Hendrix in concert won’t be disappointed. The set has 18 live cuts, stretching from early European gigs (incendiary versions of Killing Floor and Hey Joe taped in Paris in 1966) to his final Isle of Wight performance (All Along the Watchtower, In From the Storm), just weeks before his death. Disc 3, with five numbers from 1969 dates in California and London, is especially satisfying, with Hendrix at the height of his powers, inserting jaw-dropping guitar alchemy and free-flowing jams into Red House, Purple Haze and Voodoo Child. Equally cool are the cover tracks like Johnny B. Goode, Blue Suede Shoes and a version of Sgt. Pepper recorded live just days after its release — and with some of The Beatles watching. Less satisfying is a slightly remixed version of the widely available Gloria, if only because its instant familiarity breaks the box set’s spell.
Naturally, it’s hardly the only track that’s been heard before. Hendrix buffs probably already have many of these tunes in slightly different form — especially if they own In The West and Rainbow Bridge. And most of the live cuts have been bootlegged for decades. But even Hendrix completists probably don’t have all of this. And they sure don’t have it presented as beautifully as it is here — remixed by Kramer, remastered, accompanied by an 80-age book with rare photos, lyric-sheet reproductions and extensive notes, all packed in a purple-velvet box that would make Prince swoon and justifies its $137 price tag. For Jimi fans and casual listeners alike, it’s a new experience.
Hotcakes and Outtakes
For Little Feat fans, God is not a white-haired geezer on a golden throne — He’s a fat man in the bathtub with the blues.
That fat man’s name, of course, was Lowell George. To many, he was Little Feat. He founded the band back in Hollywood in the late ’60s. He was the primary architect of their unmistakable sound — an off-kilter fusion of funky New Orleans R&B, southern-fried boogie and soulful blues, delivered with a smirk and a hefty dose of giddy irreverence. And over the course of eight critically acclaimed but commercially underperforming albums, George was their musical leader, poetic visionary and chief musical prankster, penning beloved tunes such as Willin’, Sailin’ Shoes, Two Trains and Teenage Nervous Breakdown.
But when the hard-living Lowell dropped dead of a heart attack on tour in 1979, Feat died with him. At least for a time. In the late ’80s, the survivors — keyboard player Bill Payne, guitarist Paul Barrere, bassist Kenny Gradney, drummer Richie Hayward and percussionist Sam Clayton — reunited and have been on the road since, carrying the torch with the help of replacement vocalists. But even though they’ve been around longer than the original band and released almost as many albums, they can’t squirm out from under George’s tremendous shadow. For critics and Lowell loyalists, the show was over when the fat man stopped singing.
The new set Hotcakes and Outtakes is here to set the record straight. A four-CD box of hits, live cuts and unreleased tracks from every chapter in the band’s history — accompanied by a 78-page-book of photos and reminiscences from the surviving Feats — Hotcakes and Outtakes gracefully walks a fine line between paying heartfelt tribute to George and gently reminding the faithful that Feat wasn’t just Lowell and a faceless, voiceless backing band.
Indeed, as the Hotcakes section makes clear, the group was a collaborative effort from the git-go. The disc’s first song is Strawberry Flats, a ballsy, piano-driven number co-written by George and Payne. It sets the tone for the two hits discs, which balance George’s solo compositions with tracks by Payne, Barrere and Hayward, who penned more than a few Feat faves (Tripe Face Boogie, Oh Atlanta, Skin it Back, Time Loves a Hero) without Lowell. Here and there, you can quibble about song selection — George’s magnificent Apolitical Blues is passed over for Payne’s Cat Fever, for instance. But whatever — if you’re a Feat fan, you’ve already got all these songs.
What you might not have are the surprisingly strong tunes on Disc 3, which follow the band from their ’88 reunion onward. Cherry-picked from their first six post-Lowell discs, these 16 numbers downplay the role of Bonnie Raitt-ish lead vocalist Shaun Murphy in favour of tunes designed to display the boys’ continued prowess. And you gotta admit, they still have more chops than a kung-fu film fest. Hayward’s stumbling syncopation, Barrere’s sizzling guitars, Payne’s elegant honky-tonking are in full effect on numbers like Hate to Lose Your Lovin’, Let it Roll and Home Ground. Point taken, guys.
Even so, the real drawing card here is the final CD Outtakes, with 25 unreleased gems from the George era. For fans, this is a treasure trove. There are early demos (including the freaky Lightning-Rod Man produced by Frank Zappa and a groovy midtempo version of Teenage Nervous Breakdown). There are alternate takes or working versions of The Fan, Easy to Slip (here titled Easy to Fall), Texas Rose Café, Tripe Face Boogie and others. There are studio instrumentals (Jazz Thing in 10) and material from George’s solo album Thanks I’ll Eat it Here (a smoother, poppier version on Roll Um Easy).
For my money, though, the real finds are a trio of demos for Two Trains, Down Below the Borderline and Rockin’ Shoes. Featuring just Lowell’s voice and guitar over an ultra-cheap drum machine, these tracks are pure, unfiltered George that will send a shiver down your spine. This is why Little Feat has trouble escaping George’s shadow — and their inclusion is a touching tribute to Lowell’s memory and genius. Somewhere, the fat man is smiling.
The big coloured ball on this CD’s cover is a fitting symbol for the wildly bouncing, up-and-down 30-year career of brothers Ron and Russell Mael, better known as Sparks. In the early ’70s they were glam-rockers; in the latter part of that decade they turned to Eurodisco; then back to guitar-rock in the early ’80s; then back to dance-pop; etc., etc. Now, after a pair of well-received albums — 1997’s Plagiarism, on which they covered themselves, and 1995’s Gratuitous Sax and Senseless Violins — they boys have once again taken a bad bounce. Balls carries on in the same icy-cool, keyboard-driven dance-pop vein as Sax, but without its inspired songwriting. Many of the grooves are limp and watery while the lyrics are one-dimensional double-entendres (Balls, More Than a Sex Machine) and jokes without punchlines (How to Get Your Ass Kicked, It’s a Knockoff). Sit this one out and catch them on the rebound.
Words for Living
It’s tempting and easy to write off P.J. Olsson as another Beck-biter, what with his penchant for folktronic hip-hop grooves and post-psychedelic pothead lyrics like “got my underwater cymbal filled with energy.” Whoa, like heavy, dude. When his long-delayed sophomore disc Words for Living is said and done, however, Olsson is more than just another midnite vulture getting crazy with the Cheez Whiz. For one thing, Olsson’s songs tend to have an actual lyrical point, even if it happens to be something as goofy as his love of weed (Visine, Dandelion) or his belief that God is talking to him via his music (Through Rock Songs). For another, like Joseph Arthur or Beth Orton, he has more true blue-eyed soul in his slacker-toned pipes than Mr. Hansen. We suspect his father’s job as a Motown executive has something to do with it. Or not. Either way, Olsson’s shimmery, swirly, acid-washed dream-pop shows he’s no Loser.
East Autumn Grin
Wanna pull a fast one on your friends? Tell them you’ve got a bootleg of Paul Westerberg jamming with U2, then play them almost any track off this winning sophomore CD from Pennsylvania-born, Nashville-based singer-songwriter Matthew Ryan. They’ll buy it hook, line and sinker, once they hear Ryan’s whiskey-and-Marlboros rasp, chest-beating delivery and ringing, high-string guitar lines, which invest tracks like 3rd of October, Heartache Weather and The World is on Fire with the same sort of heartland-rock grandeur and emotion as mid-period Mellencamp or Springsteen. Of course, once you come clean on his true identity, some folks might write Ryan off as just another wannabe soundalike. And perhaps they’re right. But hey, almost everybody sounds like somebody — and let’s face it, Ryan could do a lot worse.
Austin Lounge Lizards
Never an Adult Moment
Comedic country crooner and crime writer Kinky Friedman calls long-serving Texas bluegrass sextet Austin Lounge Lizards one of his favourite bands. If it’s good enough for the Kinkstah, that’s good enough for me. And you. Especially if you go for cockeyed country swing and bluegrass, expertly picked and outfitted with whip-smart, socially conscious attitude reminiscent of Friedman or Loudon Wainwright III. In that case, highbrow numbers like Rasputin’s HMO and The Illusion Travels by Stock Car (a slice of gypsy jazz surrealism starring Richard Petty and Luis Bunuel) are right up your alley. For those without the graduate degree, there’s always the deconstructionist spoof Grunge Song (actually a Vestibules cover) or the Bob Wills-style horror comedy Hillbillies in a Haunted House. They should be enough to make the Lizards one of your favourite acts.
Things I Gave Away
If you’d never heard of Mollie O’Brien (as I hadn’t), you’d probably take one look (as I did) at her name and red curls and think (as I thought), ‘Uh-oh, another Celtic folkie — be very afraid.’ Well, fear not; despite her Irish Spring locks and looks, this Colorado blues and jazz vocalist is more Bonnie Raitt than Bonnie Doon. On this fourth solo album, the older sister and frequent collaborator of Hot Rize’s Tim O’Brien lends her expressive, powerfully clear alto to a wonderfully eclectic set of covers ranging from the breezy lounge-jazz version of The Beatles’ You Won’t See Me to the gritty, folk-blues moan of Percy Mayfield’s River’s Invitation, along with rootsy funk, standup-bass torch and soulful blues-rock thrown in for good measure. Even if you haven’t heard of her before, you’ll be eager to hear more.
Finally: A new album from original Canadian rock cynic Art Bergmann? Well, sorta. Vultura Freeway isn’t a true followup to Bergmann’s 1995 What Fresh Hell is This, but it is stuff you probably haven’t heard before. These 10 tracks are actually the former Young Canadian’s first solo fare, recorded back in 1984 after the breakup of his new wave band Los Popularos but before his career took off with 1988’s Crawl With Me. Musically, they’re closer to the former than the latter, with all the finger-popping bass lines, cheesy keyboards and faux disco drums of the sort of vintage ’80s pop Art would probably rather forget. Thankfully, there’s plenty of Art’s angst-riddled, drug-fuelled edginess to invest poppy songs like Poisoned, Fade to Black and Deathwatch with a counterbalance of black-hearted, churning desperation and menace. Even as a young pup, Art was a venom-spitting, disillusioned pessimist. Nice to see some things never change.
Blitzkrieg Over You
Hey, ho, let’s go! Ramones tribute bands, it seems, are almost as common as Elvis impersonators in Vegas. This German compilation collects the work of several you’ve probably never heard (Anfall, anyone?), all of whom crash, bash, slash and burn their way through all the hits in the New York punks’ extensive catalog. For marquee value, you also get various covers, odes and side-project tracks by the likes of Die Toten Hosen (Blitzkrieg Bop, featuring Joey), Motörhead (R.A.M.O.N.E.S.), Nina Hagen (Lass Mich in Ruhe, a collaboration with Dee Dee) and The Adicts (I Wanna Be Sedated). And for those who say all Ramones songs sound the same, here’s evidence to the contrary — even in German with different lyrics, there’s no mistaking Die Wikingjugend Hat Mein Mädcen Entführt for anything besides The KKK Took My Baby Away. And of course, Gabba Gabba Hey is the same in any language.
Punk Chartbusters Vol. 1-3
In the ’70s, The Sex Pistols redid The Monkees’ (I’m Not Your) Steppin’ Stone. Since then, covering cheeseball pop hits has been an ironic rite of passage for punk bands. This series from German label SPV taps into the mother lode — more than 100 covers of everyone from Abba to Zappa, recorded by dozens of mostly European punk and hardcore acts. Most adhere to the standard formula of simply playing the original song louder, harder and faster. But a few acts manage to improve upon (or at least transform) the originals. Like Me First and the Gimme Gimmes, who punkify Elton John’s Don’t Let the Sun Go Down on Me on Vol. 3 without sacrificing its poppy harmonies, or Yeti Girls, who turn ELO’s Don’t Bring Me Down into a snarling riff-rocker on Vol. 2. The only drawback? With all these songs taken, punks will have to find new tracks to cover. Which means it’s only a matter of time till someone covers What a Girl Wants.