Hendrix diverted to R&B and funk on 'People, Hell and Angels'
By NICK TAVARES
STATIC and FEEDBACK Editor
As it is with Jimi Hendrix projects culled from the vault since the 1997 takeover of his catalog by his family’s Experience Hendrix label, there needs to be a compelling reason to attach the guitarist’s name to a new album.
Though “Jimi Hendrix playing guitar” would be compelling enough for some fans, this compilation, People, Hell and Angels, zooms in on Hendrix’s experiments in the studio in late 1969 and early 1970, sketching out ideas and shaping songs on into the late hours as blazes toward the path that eventually took him to his unfinished final studio album, First Rays of the New Rising Sun.
People, Hell and Angels finds Hendrix without the Experience and mostly with his Band of Gypsys cohorts, including folks who worked out with the Gypsy, Sun & Rainbows band that took the stage at Woodstock. In keeping with the new direction, People, Hell and Angels features more funk and rhythmic workouts in the place of the blazing guitar treatments that are so quickly associated with a Hendrix record.
One of the more interesting moments is “Mojo Man,” a slice of Rhythm-and-Blues-inspired funk recorded with the Ghetto Fighters (who would later lend backing vocals to some of the First Rays of the New Rising Sun tracks). “Mojo Man” finds Hendrix channeling his chitlin’ circuit days as the bandleader he could have been if he hadn’t been so busy reinventing electric music, pumping in horns and a blues vocal that all come together as a party.
This set also offers a bit of validation to Lonnie Youngblood, a musician whose sessions with Hendrix have been erroneously packaged as full-on Jimi Hendrix records, infuriating fans and leading to more than a little confusion. Here, on “Let Me Love You,” the pair share equal footing on an R&B track that properly places the saxophonist in context with Hendrix, while offering fans a bit of music that’s actually worthy of release. All those prior compilations can be boiled down to one song, and it’s both satisfying and more than enough.
And in the spirit of correcting the many sins exacted upon Hendrix’s catalog in the decades following his death, “Crash Landing” is rescued from its overdub prison. “Finished” by studio musicians in the mid-1970s as the title track of another Hendrix record, here it’s presented in its appropriately skeletal state, a piece containing early elements of “Freedom” with Cox and drummer Rocky Issac backing. It’s a jam, like a lot of the recordings here, unfinished yet fascinating. “Hey Gypsy Boy” is rescued from similar circumstances and is all the better for it.
Other directions are channeled through “Easy Blues,” which leans heavily on a jazzy backing as Hendrix twists and jams through a six-minute take. “Hear My Train a-Comin’” is present as well, in a loose interpretation that forecasts the version released on Live at the Fillmore East with the Band of Gypsys. The fact that “Hear My Train a-Comin’” is on nearly all of these posthumous albums, and always sounds different enough to justify its inclusion, never ceases to bring a smile to my face.
But as for studio material, People, Hell and Angels is apparently the end of the line. There’s an understandable amount of skepticism that goes along with a statement like this, but if engineer Eddie Kramer is to be believed, this will be the last posthumous compilation of Hendrix in a recording setting.
So, paired with the three original studio albums, the live Band of Gypsys, the completed First Rays of the New Rising Sun, the collections South Saturn Delta, Valleys of Neptune and the four-disc The Jimi Hendrix Experience, we now have Hendrix’s entire studio output, conveniently sorted and filed for context. The supremely devoted, of course, have been diving into bootlegs and unedited studio tapes for years (the unofficial, five-disc Unsurpassed Masters provides a nice glimpse into this bit of overwhelming fanaticism, of which I’m happily guilty of indulging), but for the music world at large, parsing through the miles of tape is appreciated and necessary.
Together with those posthumous compilations, People, Hell and Angels provides a window into Hendrix’s process and a glimpse of different directions, some he followed and some he abandoned. And, on its own, it’s another chapter in Hendrix’s all-too-short saga, one that serves as an engaging, compelling listen independent of the other albums. With an artist like this, all the music that can be considered listenable should be welcome.
Of course, there is no other artist like this; every addition to the catalog becomes a valuable artifact because Hendrix was and is without peer. Putting on this record is both familiar and new, a thrilling experience in listening. And it’ll fill the time nicely, until the next, mind-blowing live package is unleashed on the dedicated masses.
Like on the Experience box set, we’re left with a taste of what could have been. In less than two minutes, the closing “Villanova Junction Blues” offers up a bit of Hendrix simply playing, unencumbered with the demands of touring or delivering another hit. His tone, style and inventiveness are all there, all the elements that made him such a dynamic force in the first place.
Then, all too soon, it fades away. Nothing abrupt, but the volume pans down and the last guitar lines float out into the ether and off the tape. If it’s not a fitting end to Hendrix’s final studio compendium, it’s certainly an apt one.
E-mail Nick Tavares at firstname.lastname@example.org