The grail quest continues without hope of ever actually finding the Holy Grail. It seems that it’s all about the journey, according to Hendrix archivists and those who control his legacy (Experience Hendrix LLC).
People, Hell and Angels is the latest unearthing in what is now dozens of posthumous albums under Jimi Hendrix’s name. They continually reinforce one fact: he was a creative visionary who loved to record. These releases can also go over old ground, revisiting unfinished ideas that weren’t meant for release, under the guise of offering a glimpse into Hendrix’s creative process. For serious fans, they rarely present anything unfamiliar.
People, Hell and Angels offers up some pleasant surprises, though. The 12 tracks running from spring 1968 to August 1970 are demo ideas of songs in progress, some of them nearing final arrangement. None of the songs feature the original Experience (Hendrix, Noel Redding and Mitch Mitchell) and they capture Hendrix as he moves beyond that group’s sound for bluesier, funkier sounds that incorporate cleaner guitar tones, horns, keyboards and guest musicians.
The most important part of this release is the raw, gritty mix and the comfortable groove that runs through the music. This is surprising considering the varying dates of the recordings and personnel. Hendrix’s Band of Gypsies rhythm section of Buddy Miles (drums) and Billy Cox (bass) appears on many songs, bringing a funky backbone to Hendrix’s flights of fancy.
The material is a mixed bag. For a discerning fan, most of this music has appeared elsewhere and it’s down to which take is used. So when People, Hell and Angels, like many other Hendrix releases, is presented as having “previously unreleased” material, it’s down to take three or take 12, or a slight variation on arrangement, but essentially the same song. Let’s look at the songs here:
Earth Blues, a late-period Hendrix track, was first released on Rainbow Bridge in 1971 in fuller form (guitar overdubs, backing vocals). The ’71 track is an explosive cosmic funk song. This one is basic and unfinished sounding, a demo that sounds cool because it’s well recorded.
Somewhere is notable for having Stephen Stills on bass and Buddy Miles on drums. An earlier release was on the controversial 1975 album, Crash Landing, where producer Alan Douglas wiped the original backing tracks and replaced them with studio musicians. Some of this song’s lyrics also later ended up on Earth Blues (Rainbow Bridge version). This highlights a difference from the work Hendrix completed in his lifetime. His usual poetically hallucinogenic lyrics aren’t in abundance on this compilation. But at the 2:00 mark in Somewhere, Hendrix substitutes his guitar in place of lyric poetry in a section that’s one of the album’s highlights (a previously unheard one, as well).
Hear My Train ‘A Comin’ is yet another song that appears on several Hendrix albums in different versions. This version is a steady-on bluesy drive with the Cox-Miles rhythm section, a solid and spacey blues workout with snarly Hendrix guitar tone. When heard against an earlier version (Rainbow Bridge again!)it falls short only because of the previous version’s searing, apocalyptic solo – one of Hendrix’s live high points.
Bleeding Heart also has antecedents (Albert Hall, Valleys of Neptune) but this is a fresh, clean blues-jam that sounds tight, if pedestrian.
Here things get a bit weird and interesting.
Let Me Move You is Hendrix guesting on saxophonist/vocalist Lonnie Youngblood’s R&B/blues rave up. This track has high energy rhythm work and a cool squealing sax intro.
Isabella was first heard on 1972’s War Heroes in a more complete form than is offered here. Also, the song appeared in Hendrix’s Woodstock set medley in full sonic glory. This version is the early base for Hendrix’s later space-funk forages on the song.
Easy Blues is a very cool, relaxed jazz-rock jam that’s heavy on the laid-back progression. An almost identical version is on Nine to the Universe. This doesn’t need to be here.
Crash Landing is an illuminating discovery, rare amongst this bunch. This song, a rock/funk cautionary drug tale, was the title track on the 1975 Alan Douglas produced album. Here is the original version with the original musicians intact. This is a unique song with gritty music and biting lyrics – a nice surprise.
Inside Out is a demo track for extreme Hendrix fans. This song later evolved into the last section of Ezy Rider on 1971’s Cry of Love. It sounded brilliant there.
Hey Gypsy Boy is a beautiful early demo version of Hey Baby (New Rising Sun) which first appeared on 1971’s Rainbow Bridge. This version has a sensitive vocal performance and lovely Univibe guitar work, but it has heavy competition against the haunting ‘71 Hey Baby which is complete.
Mojo Man is Hendrix’s guitar guesting on his friend’s (Albert Allen of the Ghetto Fighters) Superfly urban bad-ass track. It just needs Isaac Hayes.
Last is Villanova Junction Blues, an ethereal instrumental that was best heard in Hendrix’s Woodstock performance, an iconic moment that sums up a passing era that didn’t realize it was over. It evokes movement and meditation and here it’s delicate and exploratory, but short and out of context.
Most of the music here will be familiar, but there are some new passages and the mix is clean and gritty, showing Hendrix in a bluesy setting where he sounds relaxed.
— Dean Gordon-Smith is a Vernon-based musician and freelance writer who reviews recorded music for The Morning Star in his column, Street Sounds, every Friday.