By 1970, Jimi Hendrix was devoting a great deal of his time to the studio. He spent much of his time at his own studio, Electric Lady, developing new material and experimenting with numerous musicians. The process of creating and recording new music held his passion, while churning out requests before roaring crowds was losing his interest. His first real post-Experience group, Band Of Gypsys, had fallen apart after playing only five gigs and he was now in the process of morphing the two groups into one by bringing back Experience drummer, Mitch Mitchell, while retaining the Band Of Gypsies bass player, Billy Cox.
Without question, Hendrix had a lot on his mind at the time. Legal hassles and contract disputes were escalating. Managerial relations were at an all time low. Even his relationship to his music had become a challenge. Eruptions would occur over "The Star Spangled Banner" and "Purple Haze," but fans seemed either too distracted or unable to grasp his deeply felt new music like "Machine Gun." Sensitive as Hendrix was, he was literally torn between giving the fans what they wanted and playing music that inspired him and explored new territory.
To all this, add the surroundings. Hendrix arrived in Berkeley, a town synonymous with radical political thinking and protest, two days prior to these shows. A week earlier, a riot over Peoples Park left one man dead and others wounded. The previous month, anti-ROTC demonstrators battled police on the University of California campus, and the destruction was so extensive that the campus had been shut down completely. Additionally, the theater was small - 3,500-person capacity - and it became well known that they would be filming a feature-length film. Not only did this stir even more controversy, but the clamor for tickets was at a near hysterical state. Over a thousand ticketless fans were outside, determined to get in. These elements all combined to create a pressure-cooker atmosphere.
The late show
that evening begins with exactly the opposite approach of the early show (also available here in The Concert Vault). Rather than give the audience what it wants, Hendrix challenges them by devoting the first 15 minutes of his performance to an experimental jam, presenting new material that he had been developing during his countless hours in his studio. They begin with a loose funky take on "Pass It On," an embryonic version of what would soon develop into "Straight Ahead" in the studio. Hendrix warns that it will be an instrumental jam to warm up, but he actually sings an early form of the lyrics as well. After seven minutes or so, he begins to transition into the first highlight of this set, an early live rendition of "Hey Baby (New Rising Sun)," one of the centerpiece tracks to the album he never completed. It's still in development here, but all the elements are in place for what would become one of Hendrix's most beautiful and seductive songs. Possibly sensing that the audience wants something more upbeat, this suddenly (and somewhat awkwardly) changes into the frenetic opening riffs to "Lover Man," which they rip through to end the opening sequence.
Much like the early show, Hendrix begins vacillating between what he feels like playing and what he knows will please the audience and/or the eventual film viewing audience. He concedes to the audience and performs three well-known older numbers beginning with "Stone Free" and "Hey Joe." Although sloppy performances, the audience responds with roars of approval. Performancewise, things greatly improve with the sadly prophetic "I Don't Live Today." This features plenty of vicious guitar work and superb drumming from Mitchell, but one can also clearly hear the anger and frustration in Hendrix's vocal. The improvisation is kept to a minimum, as Hendrix is itching to get back into new material.
Also performed during the early show, Hendrix's second take of "Machine Gun" is a performance for the ages. Here Hendrix is fully engaged, creating a collage of sound while Mitch adds tension with military drumming. Using his guitar to dramatic effect, jungle sounds, bomb explosions and barrages of bullets are all conveyed through his guitar alone. This is a mesmerizing performance that is both terrifying and sublime. With good reason, this version of "Machine Gun" was prominently featured in the "Hendrix Plays Berkeley" film and was so compelling that it became the primary reason for viewing it.
At this point, Hendrix's desire to satisfy the audience, film crew and the three women who accompanied him to Berkeley, becomes the primary motivation. He dedicates the next song, "Foxy Lady" to his three friends, taking time to acknowledge them individually during his intro. It's a fiery version, with plenty of flash, but beyond his astounding technical abilities, nothing special. "The Star Spangled Banner" into "Purple Haze" that follows is prefaced by a cosmic monologue where he encourages the audience to stand up as Americans, before stating, "This is the American Anthem, the way it really is, in the air, which you breathe every day, the way it really sounds..." This briefly returns to the sonic collage territory explored in "Machine Gun," but with less compelling results. Much like his contribution to the Woodstock album, which was riding high on the charts at the time, the "Banner" segues directly into "Purple Haze," with a similar feel and fury.
Hendrix closes with a pummeling take on "Voodoo Child (Slight Return)" that is a non-stop barrage of mind boggling guitar manipulations. A palpable anger permeates this performance as well, but despite his frustrations, his control of tone and feedback is as extraordinary as ever. The recording ends with the sounds of a standing ovation and some closing announcements over the PA system.
Sadly, Jimi would be gone a mere three and a half months later.
-Written by Alan Bershaw