ifeminists.com: A central gathering place and information center for individualist feminists.   -- explore the new feminism --
introduction | interaction | information

ifeminists.com > introduction > editorials

Love or Confusion?
February 25, 2004
by Matt Rosenberg

CONCERT REVIEW -- Experience Hendrix; Sunday, 2/22/04; Paramount Theatre, Seattle.

The spirit of Jimi lives, almost whenever I put on some tunes. Last night, it was channeled via New Jersey-based pedal steel guitarist Robert Randolph, on his new gospel-blues-rock CD, "Unclassified." The chill-inducing quote of Hendrix's "Voodoo Chile" at the end of Randolph's tune, "Nobody" was just a formal nod. The whole song cycle is suffused with late electric guitar god's omniverous, celebratory mojo.

Some Hendrix licks aren't too hard to learn, but the trick is how they're played. It has been said Jimi played on, over and through his guitar, which becomes clear in concert footage. He would have somehow deconstructed and re-assembled a clarinet's possibilities in the same spirit, had he played that instrument instead.

This helps explain why performers ranging from The Kronos String Quartet, Ellen McIlwaine and Stanley Jordan have all covered Hendrix songs. The astounding technique is always in service of the melody, the composition, the blues, and the soul. Easy reference points include classic Hendrix hits such as "Hey Joe," "The Wind Cries Mary," the studio version of the slow blues, "Red House," and Hendrix's turbo-charged cover on "Electric Ladyland" of New Orleans r&b guitarist Earl King's 1962 gem, "Come On."

I'd been to a real mess of a Jimi Hendrix tribute concert at Seattle's Bumbershoot festival in 1995, so I wasn't quite sure what to expect Sunday night. It was the debut of the "Experience Hendrix" West Coast mini-tour, at Seattle's beautifully restored Paramount Theatre. There were cathedral ceilings, intricate design elements everywhere, and huge hanging chandeliers; a splendid place.

With so many name acts on the bill, I figured there'd at least be a few high points. And there were, along with some clear indications about what needs to be fixed before the concert producers hired by Jimi's estate take this show national, as is the stated aim.

They'll want to get it right, because in May, Experience Hendrix LLC releases a major Hendrix tribute CD featuring Eric Clapton, Sting, Santana, Prince, the late Stevie Ray Vaughn, the late John Lee Hooker, and, of all people, the aforementioned Robert Randolph.

Cover tunes are highly marketable, but risk triviality. There are bar bands doing note-for-note versions of songs by Hendrix, The Beatles, Doors, Stones, ZZ Top, and countless r&b oldie groups. Fun, but who needs 'em, really? The enlightened artist uses the cover tune as a starting point for a journey to who-knows-where.

Like former Earth, Wind and Fire guitarist Sheldon Reynolds. Joined by Kid Rock guitarist Kenny Olsen, they got the show into gear early with a great version of Hendrix's "Who Knows," a bluesy jam Jimi recorded live on "Band of Gypsys," New Years Eve 1969 in New York. They traded solo choruses; Reynolds throwing in some fine scat phrasing; and were complemented by a great ARP synth solo from one of Reynolds' two keyboardists.

Next, guitarist Mato Nanji and the Native-American group Indigenous tore it up, doing the classic Hendrix power ballad, "Little Wing," and the long blues jam, "Hear My Train A' Comin." A good showcase for these guys -- I'm going to check out their CD now. Veteran blues-rocker Eric Gales followed, oozing attitude, and turning "Purple Haze" inside out most admirably.

Then, a train wreck. The great Chicago blues session guitarist Hubert Sumlin was sabotaged, by his pairing with guitarist Jimmy Lane.

Sumlin's clean, sinewy, fills influenced a whole generation of electric guitarists listening to the classic Howlin' Wolf tunes recorded in Chicago on Chess Records, such as "Built For Comfort," "Shake For Me," "300 Pounds of Joy," "Louise," "Goin' Down Slow," "Killing Floor," and "Wang Dang Doodle."

Experience Hendrix had already earned my respect for unearthing rare, early-60s European TV footage of Sumlin live with the great blues songwriter Willie Dixon on acoustic bass and Sunnyland Slim on piano, on the recently released DVD, "The American Folk Blues Festival 1962-1966" (Volume Two).

Such a small, mostly acoustic trio, or modulated quartet is still what suits Sumlin's understated style best. But his cohort Lane, a beefy, 50-ish guy in a faux Jimi outfit (broad-brimmed hat, suede boots with fringe) was determined to have his White Stratocaster heard all the way to Anchorage. Sumlin got a few licks in, including a delicious staccato-phrased, call-and-response solo that sounded like a woman scolding her lover. He said more in those 45 seconds than Lane did all night.

The tour producers should send Lane packing, right off, and get Mr. Sumlin some simpatico backing. This is a lousy way to treat a real-life legend.

A mini-set featuring a couple of Seattle rock icons worked nicely. Former Alice in Chains guitarist Jerry Cantrell was joined by former Heart vocalist Ann Wilson for "Hey Joe" and "Manic Depression."

The late 80s pop-metal group Living Color, led by guitarist Vernon Reid, just about stole the show. Reid came up playing outside jazz in the early 80s with groups such as drummer Ronald Shannon Jackson's Decoding Society, and later co-founded The NYC-based Black Rock Coalition to promote, well, black rock. Most recently, Reid has been into freaky, beat-heavy soundscapes; as on his recent Yohimbe Brothers CD with DJ Logic. Reid's playing Sunday was a bit less reined-in than in Living Color's MTV heyday: he created dense, shifting tone clusters; Coltrane-esque sheets of sound.

Yet Reid still knows when to step back and let the song happen. With dreadlocked, peripatetic uberfunkbassist Doug Wimbish, manic vocalist Will Calhoun and a solid drummer, Living Color captured the r&b heart of Jimi's "Power of Soul" and then busted it up into spiky shards. "Crosstown Traffic" turned into a monstrous funk jam, Calhoun invading the balcony and threatening to jump back down to the ground floor. Now that's entertainment.

Young blues guitar phenom Kenny Wayne Shepherd, using nary an effects pedal, managed to top Living Color, bringing an intense, Stevie Ray Vaughn Texas roadhouse swagger to "Come On" and "Voodoo Chile." By his last number, "I Don't Live Today," he was playing in tongues.

This was followed by the Buddy Guy debacle. The blues legend has a stellar career, going back more than 40 years. He's played on two of the best blues records ever: Junior Wells' "Hoodoo Man Blues," and "Buddy Guy and Junior Wells Play The Blues." In recent years, the recording studio has been his salvation because his flakiness can be papered over. He's got a string of awards and nightclub in Chicago called "Legends." And there's the problem. Watching him onstage, you can see he's become a legend in his own mind.

Somewhere along the way, Buddy lost it. He's still got a fine voice, and can snap off bluesy runs on his guitar. But for a good while now, his live performances have been highly erratic. I saw it again Sunday at the Paramount. Guy won't keep to a beat; stops, starts and digresses; leaves dead space in the middle of a song; and relies on an old, old trick of playing so softly you can barely hear him, then cranking it up to 11. There's no continuity in his solos, he's just spewing out licks here and there. Every tune was a slow, plodding dirge.

The man was essentially lost, barely in there. His accompanists were clearly struggling to follow him, always a bad sign.

Guy's current act would never pass muster in the West Side Chicago blues clubs where he first made his name. Yet this sad shtick passed for blues genius before an undiscerning, wildly enthusiastic Seattle crowd Sunday night. Seattle audiences are like this for any big-name act, afraid of seeming unappreciative and thus unsophisticated. Call it a boondocks mentality - that persists despite our (sullied) international cachet.

Experience Hendrix does a disservice to the music that inspired Jimi -- the blues -- by allowing Buddy Guy onstage, and worse, making him the star attraction.

Guy's antics are well-known. Here's a "teaser" from the program guide of The Madison (WI) Blues Festival:

Buddy Guy: He's the king of Chicago blues, the multi-Grammy-winning heir to mentor Muddy Waters' throne, and he's becoming a Madison Blues Festival regular. Which is fine by us -- so long as he stays on track and doesn't cut off songs just when they get a-chuggin'. Despite his often erratic stage behavior, the 66-year-old Guy remains the godfather of electric-guitar blues, exerting more energy than players half his age and still releasing quality new material.

Jason Koransky puts it even more plainly, reviewing for Centerstage Chicago a bogus show Guy put on at his own club, for cry-yi, Legends.

Buddy has his tricks. Walking into the audience. Throwing a few "What the fuck are you doing?" remarks to the crowd between songs. The trademark orgasmic smile and a drum stick to the guitar. Signs of a rock star, and if he played a full two-hour, soulful, focused set, then all this would be warranted. But starting and stopping nearly 10 songs....the show turned into more of a disjointed practice session than a $25 ticket affair....Throw in a crowd applauding these insincere antics (and the contingent yelling at the top of their lungs about stock trading), and, well, try to unload your tickets (if you've already bought them) to someone who does not read this review.

So true. Been there, been there, been there. Cambridge, Massachusetts, early 80s; Chicago, too many times to count, in the 80s and early 90s. Word's been out for a good while about Buddy. How could Experience Hendrix not know? Or not care?

Another problem Sunday: momentum was difficult to maintain with so many changes of the guard on stage. The emcees were left to natter while the audience called for more music.

There are two big things that threaten obsolescence for tribute tours and even tribute CDs to legendary, ever-vital artists such as Hendrix.

One is a slavish devotion to doing covers. Buddy Guy's set at least was blues standards, not Hendrix covers, but was so poorly and embarrassingly executed that the point was lost.

The second threat to Hendrix tributes specifically, live or recorded, is electricity -- strange as that may sound. I say this as one who fetishizes the electric guitar in all its glorious forms. I own two (a '63 Vox Super Ace, and a beautiful knock-off of a hollow-body model called the Gretsch Tennessean).

But Sunday's concert was just too loud; and too uneven. Before the Experience Hendrix tour goes national, and perhaps global, a few changes are required.

Lose Buddy Guy fast; do far better by Hubert Sumlin; and bring in a few artists more capable of nuance, and shading. Add to the mix a few jazz guitarists, a piano and sax-led group, and someone really fresh, such as the afore-mentioned Robert Randolph.

To not fix what was broken at Sunday's Experience Hendrix concert in Seattle would be to disrespect the rich legacy Jimi has left to us all. He deserves better, and so did the customers paying up to $44.50 a seat.

Even if many of them seemed not to know it.

Matt Rosenberg is a Seattle writer. E-mail him at oudist@nwlink.com; his Web log is at www.rosenblog.com.

ifeminists.com > home | introduction | interaction | information | about

ifeminists.com is edited by Wendy McElroy; it is made possible by support from The Independent Institute and members like you.