Third Strat from the sun

- Scott R. Garceau () - March 17, 2010 - 12:00am

Those who have ever visited the birth-place of Jesus in modern-day Jerusalem know this: it takes a great deal of concentration to imagine that, beneath all the artifice and modern churches and plastic candles holders, there was an actual miracle taking place, some time ago. It takes faith, and a whole lot of squinting, to look past all the modern noise in your midst.

The same goes for listening to any “new” material from the estate of Jimi Hendrix. “Valleys of Neptune,” for instance.

With decades of family legal battles over these (and remaining) vaulted Jimi Hendrix tapes, it’s worth remembering that Hendrix only officially released four albums before asphyxiating at age 27 — three with his Jimi Hendrix Experience trio and one live set with the Band of Gypsys. So to call “Valleys of Neptune” the “new Jimi Hendrix album” is kind of, er, a stretch. Its existence has been Internet fodder for years, with some leaked MP3 tracks surfacing, passed around among would-be guitar heroes.

But when you strip away the money-chasing and fierce branding that the Hendrix Estate has engaged in over the years, what still remains is this: previously unheard Hendrix material. Not quite miraculous, but very welcome nonetheless.

The big news is that “Valleys of Neptune” features the original Jimi Hendrix Experience, rather than a ragtag selection of pickup players and friends — a distinction that gains poignancy now that all three members (including drummer Mitch Mitchell and bassist Noel Redding) have shucked off the mortal coil. Except for three tracks with Bully Cox sitting in on bass, this is mostly just the trio, back in the studio in ’69 to work on a follow-up to “Electric Ladyland.” The nimble interaction is there, though some of the rhythm tracks were apparently “re-recorded” in studio back in 1987 by Mitchell and Cox. They actually sound fine.

Oddly, the CD song lineup is presented without regard to recording history (the liner notes present the studio chronology in a more coherent light), so we open with two songs recorded in late ’69 with Cox instead of Redding on bass. It’s common to say that Cox’s relatively simple bass lines brought something elemental back to Hendrix’s music: solid, earthy funk. Cox plays sparely here, but it’s a sturdy anchor, and Hendrix plunges into the opening waters with no hesitation. Stone Free, the opening track, gains a looseness absent from the frenzied, clipped rock pace of the original.

The title track, Valleys of Neptune, has existed online in stripped-down instrumental form before, but here it gains epic life, with a vocal and extended jazzy middle section riding along on Mitch Mitchell’s cymbals. It offers glimpses of whole new worlds Hendrix had yet to fully envision.

Most of “Valleys of Neptune” sounds like a live set, which it pretty much is, gathered together from live studio rehearsals that Hendrix no doubt would have added bells and whistles to later on. Instead, we hear how Jimi might have presented the music with nothing but a bassist and drummer backing him.

What comes across is Jimi as performer, lapsing into guitar-scat passages and extended jams at every whim, but not without direction. The performers behind him may have been interchangeable, but their tightness reins him in; there’s no empty noodling here, as on other Hendrix bootlegs.

What did Hendrix bring to rock music? A fierce funk riff shorn into a blunt but elegant cave tool, ready to split mammoth hides; a galloping cascade of compressed notes mushrooming out in a billowing squall with the opening of a wah-wah pedal: Hendrix owned this. He still owns it. This is what he brought to music, and no one quite does it the same.

The next track, Bleeding Heart, begins with an ornate blues motif, typical of songs like Come On (off “Electric Ladyland”), then proceeds to the stop-start funk blues form that Hendrix could seemingly write in his sleep. It explodes into two solos of flattened Strat notes that recall his live performances at the Isle of Wight. It’s clear that the carefully layered and edited pieces that eventually became “Are You Experienced” and “Electric Ladyland” were galaxies beyond the initial forays here. But it’s also clear Hendrix was enjoying himself on guitar, playing with a funky looseness and looking for pockets to throw up a few shafts of light.

Hear My Train A Comin’ has been heard before as an acoustic blues, Jimi’s own composition a nod to pioneer bluesmen. Here it turns into a monolithic head-nodder, with a thudding bass riff reminiscent of Machine Gun. It’s no exaggeration to say you haven’t heard Hear My Train A Comin’ until you’ve listened to this version.

Sunshine of Your Love is Jimi’s Cream tribute, one he often performed live. The initial Claptonian touches are taken to new levels of filigreed ornamentation in Jimi’s hands. Then there’s a spare extended middle passage that grows in hypnotic power, scratched notes set against Rocki Dzidzornu’s congas (he’s the guy who pounded out the opening riff to Sympathy for the Devil), Hendrix building funky monkey riffs up into an atonal squall until the theme returns. Must have been great to see live.

Blues is the common denominator here, and one suspects that, if the House of Hendrix truly plans to peddle another decade’s worth of vaulted tracks, most of them will be blues numbers. Unfortunately, we already know Hendrix can play the blues; secretly, we hanker to hear more groundbreaking flirtations, touches of the mad invention that made his three Experience albums so diverse and memorable. Instead, there are a few too many anonymous tracks here. Mr. Bad Luck, at least, has tongue planted firmly in cheek with its trademark Hendrix wit; Lover Man has surfaced in other forms on previous posthumous albums, but at least there’s energy and sincere love in the playing to back it up. Another version of Red House turns into an 8:23 slow jam, which, while no improvement on the echo-drenched original, is a fascinating peek into Hendrix’s desire to play… and play, and play.

Fire brings back Redding and Mitchell into a power trio format, complete with backing vocals (“Let me stand next to your fire…”). But it’s clear the song was resurrected to loosen up the three players, after a period of some estrangement. No radical surgery attempted here: it sounds like the warm-up number that it probably is.

Ships Passing Through the Night features an overdubbed Leslie-speaker guitar presence, though the track doesn’t really go anywhere special. Maybe it needed a few more hours in the Hendrix oven.

Lullaby for the Summer is an instrumental showcasing Jimi’s pick harmonic attack. Again, it sounds like a jam in search of a song, but since we’re heading into the sunset, we enjoy it while it lasts.

Crying Blue Rain, which closes out the 60-minute release, virtually steals its theme from Stop (from the Al Kooper/Mike Bloomfield/Stephen Stills “Super Sessions” album) before barreling into a flurry of strummed passages that prove there was plenty of evocative music inside Hendrix still waiting to come out. It fades out at 4:59, way too quickly. Sayang.

So there you have it: an hour in the presence of Hendrix’s enduring legacy, half of which sparks with the original magic, the other half reminding us how difficult it is to keep trawling through archived material for forgotten treasures. One value-add with the “Valleys of Neptune” CD is “exclusive access” to the jimihendrix.com “vault,” where you’ll find plenty of online videos — some, like producer Eddie Kramer illuminating the studio tricks behind Purple Haze, fascinating; others, like the mythologizing video for Bleeding Heart, merely crass. There are also streamed broadcasts of old concerts and podcasts with key players to augment your Hendrix experience. In the Internet age, it seems, there are no ghosts; only legends rebirthed in ether.

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