Bootleg enthusiasts have long basked in the improvisational majesty of the various packages documenting Jimi Hendrix’s mini-residency at San Francisco’s Winterland Ballroom in mid-October 1968. Debating the merits of one set against another has, no doubt, whiled away plenty of discussion forum hours for all sorts of guitar-niks; and now here’s the official version, which is both a revelation – if you’ve never had the treat of hearing this material – and a source of some frustration, were you an original booster.
The document is a bit of an in-betweener, and something of an oxymoron as far as compendious box sets go. It’s rangy (you get Delta blues, guileless pop, mad psych, proto-metal) and crammed with enough material that you’ll need a few hours to plow through all of it. But it’s also a bastardisation, really, of the original tapes – albeit, in better sound quality.
That’s because about half of what’s available has been lopped off. Instead of getting the two full sets from each of the three nights of the engagement, you get one set for each night, plus a bonus disc of stray Winterland cuts and an interview. Dabblers will be overwhelmed, completists horrified.
Logistics aside, there’s the matter of the music, which is up there with stalwarts such as the best of the Top Gear material, or the famed, lusty Monterey performance. The latter had a more marked degree of showmanship that you don’t get here, as there’s a workmanlike element to these proceedings: less flash-and-dash, and more honest-to-goodness, roll-up-the-shirt-sleeves-and-flail-at-your- axe music-making. Hendrix’s guitar isn’t at the fore in the manner of the latterday Experience sets – or when he was with his various festival bands – but is instead balanced against Mitch Mitchell’s deeply-resonant drums and Noel Redding’s heavily-distorted bass. Mitchell flies around his kit on the various versions of Hey Joe like he’s aping Keith Moon, clearing space for Hendrix to uncork solos that challenge the precepts of blues music by making it an interstellar, rather than earthly, concern.
Despite the intensity, which builds across the evenings, until bubbling over on one of the juicier versions of Wild Thing you’ll ever hear, Hendrix was also a man who clearly enjoyed a joke, and he’s a gas in his role as shambling MC. Before ripping into the Cream’s Sunshine of Your Love on the 10 October disc, Hendrix informs one and all that the band would like to pay tribute to Eric Clapton and company, adding, “It’s not saying that we can play anything better than them,” before snickering under his breath, and attempting to – surprise – play the cut better than Cream ever did. A fun bit of gamesmanship and rock star ego on display, it’s not as satisfying as the two takes on Tax Free, with their whorled guitar figures, which make you feel like you’re being sucked down a funnel and off to God knows where. The sweet music of departure at its finest.