Jimi Plays Berkeley DVD/CD Review

Jimi Hendrix, blowing his “public saxophone” in Jimi Plays Berkeley (Sony Legacy)
by Jon Kanis

DVD/CD review [on page 95] for issue #34 [Fall/Winter 2012] of Ugly Things magazine [filed on September 20, 2012]

Nobody knew Jimi Hendrix only had 25 more performances left in him when he took the stage with drummer Mitch Mitchell and bassist Billy Cox for two performances at the Berkeley Community Theatre on May 30, 1970. Since his death on September 18, 1970, the demand for fresh Hendrix product has ensured that as long as there is a buck to be made from the material in the vault somebody will happy to exploit it (Hendrix’s back catalog still shifts a dependable 500,000 units annually), and 42 years on it continues to be business as usual. Having moved distribution from Universal to Sony in 2009, the Experience Hendrix team is updating the back catalog, which means new reissues of the Jimi Plays Berkeley film on DVD, with the complete audio of the second set available for the first time in a 5.1 remix by Eddie Kramer. The second set is also available as a stand-alone compact disc.

As a listening experience Live At Berkeley bristles with energy, as listeners are treated to works-in-progress versions of “Straight Ahead” and “New Rising Sun” before ripping into the one-two punch of “Lover Man” and “Stone Free.” “Hey Joe” and “I Don’t Live Today” are both focused and taut before the trio launches into an amazing version of “Machine Gun” even more electrifying than the version on the Band Of Gypsies LP. “Foxey Lady” lightens the mood and sets up the “Star Spangled Banner” [“The American anthem the way it really is in the air that you breathe every day…oh, our flag was still there – big deal!”] before “Purple Haze” and a 10-minute version of “Voodoo Child (Slight Return)” that is as great as any other live Hendrix performance out there. He pulls out all the stops, demonstrating his inventive use of feedback and signal distortion, falling to his knees, playing between his legs and soloing with his teeth, masterfully twisting and braiding the tonal clusters and scales to be found in every form of the blues. A shaman with an electric guitar, this performance is simply riveting. With no overdubs or edits, mind you, just three guys in a room doing it live. It’s a pity that technical problems prevent us from hearing the complete first set as well.

You can, however, see some of the performances from that first set in the film Jimi Plays Berkeley, an essential document to appreciate the full breadth of Hendrix’s career. As a disheveled cinematic object there is much to criticize, but the historical significance cannot be over-emphasized. Three weeks before the Berkeley concerts the shooting at Kent State occurred, mirroring the tensions that had been escalating in Berkeley since the police killed a People’s Park protester the year before. With countercultural political vibes revving to an all-time high, Hendrix manager Michael Jeffrey thought it was a good idea that his client be captured on film among the Berkeley radicals, to capitalize on the high profile that Hendrix was enjoying coming off of his performances in Monterey Pop and Woodstock. At the time of the Berkeley concerts Hendrix was also in the middle of creating his fourth studio offering, ostensibly titled First Rays Of The New Rising Sun, a record that he would not live to complete. The footage shot by cameraman Peter Pilafin’s team sat dormant until Hendrix’s death virtually guaranteed a return on the investment and Jeffrey enlisted Pilafin to create a composite out of the Berkeley shows.

What Pilafin and editor Baird Bryant came up with is a snapshot of the cultural tidal wave that occurred circa spring/summer 1970, interspersed with some of the last footage ever shot of Hendrix. There are times when Hendrix looks a bit washed out – i.e. tired and/or stoned – but his playing is on fire this evening, particularly during “Hear My Train A Comin’” (from the first set) and the aforementioned “Machine Gun” and “Voodoo Child,” which is particularly nice because those are three of the songs that have benefited the most from this newly expanded version of the film. If you already own the CD of Live At Berkeley you needn’t bother replacing it. The DVD, however, is another story. An artistic afterthought, the film’s haphazard evolution is well laid out in John McDermott’s liner notes. Profiteering might have been the motivating factor from the get-go for the Jimi Plays Berkeley project, but the silver lining is that some of Hendrix’s most inspired playing exists for for future generations to marvel at and enjoy.