Have You Ever Been?

I know the talk of the town has been the new Beatles box…and while I am not much of a fan of the new mixes, there is a lot of great music inside it. But I am kind of surprised that there hasn’t been more talk about the fantastic new Hendrix box set.  The White Album isn’t the only holy grail celebrating a 50th anniversary this year, there were a lot of musical milestones in 1968.  One of which was Electric Ladyland, Hendrix’s double LP opus.  Electric Ladyland is a stunning masterpiece, ear to ear with sonic daydreams, fuzzed out Stratocasters and lyrical imagination.  While Axis: Bold As Love saw Hendrix start to build upon the successes of Are You Experienced, Ladyland comes from another planet.  It is as if Hendrix jumped up a flight of psychedelic stairs.  The studio started to become home to him.  Gone were the bean counters trying to get things done efficiently.  Gone were the people trying to make sure his music didn’t get very far from the atmosphere it was so desperately trying to leave.  Gone were the restrictions of working with just Mitch and Noel.  Hendrix utilized these changes. He created.    

‘The magic carpet waits…for you’ 

There is so much brilliant music within Ladyland.  I first owned it on cassette.  I can actually remember being in 7th grade and listening for the first time on my Walkman. It was adventure unknown. The second track, Have You Ever Been (To Electric Ladyland) stands out immediately.  It’s a wicked soul tune that isn’t that far away from The Impressions and yet is lightyears away from them.  The guitar solo melody is the ‘strange beautiful/grass of green’ Hendrix had alluded to two albums ago.  I remember on that first listen when Voodoo Chile was approaching.  I was expecting Voodoo Child (Slight Return).  I was waiting for the rhythmic wah to kick in but instead was punched in the gut with some heavy blues.  Featuring Jack Casady and Steve Winwood, this 15 minute song chugs, churns, delivers.   Hearing Steve and Jimi trade solos is glorious.  Here the new vinyl really shines.  I have an older copy of this album from the 70’s.  It is in pristine shape, it pales in comparison to this newly remastered version.  It is weird to write about sound.  There are only so many phrases that work. They all start to lose meaning. What I can easily say is that the new version sounds better.  Way better. Some of the panning on Hendrix’s guitar really struck me while listening to this track.  It’s really a weird mix for a blues.  Things are continually jumping in and out of place.  Hearing this remastered copy had me excited.  Good vinyl should do that for you. 

Jimi advanced as a songwriter on this album.  He originally spoke of creating a new type of blues.  He certainly did that but this record pushes further/brighter.  Lyrically, Hendrix always feels like an acid soaked Bob Dylan.  The blue collar boots and cigarettes are gone and replaced with vibrant color and a smoke that doesn’t come from the grocer’s counter.  Even when he’s trying to be traditional, like on Rainy Day, Dream Away, he is expanding upon the influences he is recalling.  The song starts out like a late night/early morning blues bar jam…and then the color gets in the way. Rainy Day is another example where the new vinyl really comes on strong.  Buddy Miles is right up front shuffling.  Mike Finnigan’s organ has just a little more bite and glitter compared to my old copy and Hendrix’s voice just drapes over everything like a warm blanket. What a fantastic song and perfect performance.  Always puts a smile on my face to have it reappear on Side 4. 

1983 (A Merman I Should Turn To Be) and Moon, Turn the Tides...Gently Gently Away will always be my favorite recorded studio music from Jimi Hendrix.  Music can always take us home.  Music can always make us feel the way we felt when we first heard it.  Every time 1983 starts, I am that same kid with my Walkman.  Sometimes while listening to this album, I have to calm my anticipation for Side 3 and remember to enjoy all of the other brilliant songs and sonic delights.  1983 is breathtaking.  I’ve never heard music like this.  I don’t believe music ever existed like this before this. And I have yet to hear anything like it since.  It is hidden treasure.  This gem stone was not purchased at Zales.  It was discovered, covered and rediscovered by the new people. And again, on this remaster it has been taken out of the cellophane and put on display for all to hear.  Every little quiet passage just surges with bliss.  This is the coat you were hoping to receive on Christmas, and it is beaming just as you wanted it to at the bus stop after winter break.   

This brings me to the next part of the box that is so damn wondrous, the outtakes.  Two records full of pre-production Electric Ladyland goodness. The first LP of outtakes we hear Jimi in the Drake Hotel alone with a Stratocaster. He might as well be in the chair next to you.  The vinyl gets us as close as we are ever going to get to him.  He’s singing just above a whisper, his guitar softly accompanying him in the background. These demos come straight from his personal tape machine. I first heard them somewhere in the 90’s.  There was a graphic novel about Jimi that my mom and dad bought me.  In the back of the book was a CD.  This wasn’t an ‘official’ Hendrix release.  I’m not sure who had the tapes or what it took for the Hendrix estate to get them back but I am so glad they’re included.  There is a fantastic 7+ minute demo of 1983 that outlines everything.  There is an early version of Angel as well.  I might be bold but I think it smokes the final release of Angel.  Yes, I know Hendrix was never there to fully finish and mix Angel.  But this version is so intimate and soulful. There is a freshness and sincerity to it.   

The second LP of outtakes finds us in the studio with the band.  Early takes on Long Hot Summer Night are among my favorites.  We start with just Al Kooper on piano and Jimi playing through the changes.  The next take is with the full band and has considerable more whomp.  There is an excitement. I really dig hearing Rainy Day Shuffle.  It’s just Jimi and the fellas stretching on that main theme but the band is holdin’ court! Another stand out (surprisingly) is Little Miss Strange.  Never really cared for that track.  Sorry. I am going to be rude here but I always felt like the attitude was, ‘Fine, we can stick it somewhere on the LP, but let me layer some guitars and at least try to make it as decent as possible before it sits next to my work.  And Noel owes me!’  My cynical vision was wrong.  This take features Jimi behind the control board, Noel on electric guitar, Stephen Stills on bass and Buddy Miles on drums.  It’s a nice run through and it’s cool to have my original fantasy shattered by reality.   

Outtakes can be a mixed blessing.  I love to go back and hear how things were made, but sometimes I question how many times I will keep listening.  With The Beatles box, The Esher Demos are something I find myself listening to a lot.  The pre-production demos stand fine on their own.  I can’t say the same about the Sgt. Pepper outtakes that came with the 2017 remixed Pepper.  I’ve listened to them twice and while they offer a little insight to the sessions, I don’t really care to hear them again.  The demos on the Electric Ladyland box set stand alone.  Especially the first record of hotel Hendrix.  I know that particular record will be on the platter a lot around here.  It already has been.   

Finally, the box comes with 2 more LPs.  A live recording from September 14th 1968 at The Hollywood Bowl.  This show has been bootlegged for years.  It was a famous night in Hendrix history as the crowd jumped into the pool of the bowl in reaction to the wild music being played.  The show was almost stopped as the risk of electrocution came into play.  It is my understanding that the pool at the bowl was like a moat between audience and band.  Sound was breaking the barrier figuratively. Kids were breaking the barrier physically. I know a lot of people were hoping that this would be an official board release.  Something that sounds better than the bootlegged audio.  Sadly, it is still an audience tape, but the powers that be have cleaned it up as much as possible.  I have a lot of live Hendrix.  This part of the box was not what I was most excited about.  But it’s really worth multiple listens.  The band has an energy that is contagious.  It’s no wonder the kids tried to cross the moat.   

To me, this is THE box to buy this year.  It’s 6LPs of Hendrix Ladyland wonderland for not much more than a hundred bucks.  There is so much beauty.  This box serves Electric Ladyland well.  It doesn’t feel like a cash grab.  It feels like an homage to one of the greatest rock and roll records of all time.  Long live Ladyland.  Long live the spirit and music of Jimi Hendrix.

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