Jimi Hendrix - guitar, vocals; Billy Cox - bass; Mitch Mitchell - drums
At this point in Hendrix's career, his great love was the studio and 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.
Without question, Hendrix had a lot on his mind at the time. His first real post-Experience group had fallen apart after playing only five gigs and he was morphing the two groups into one by bringing back Mitch Mitchell on drums and keeping Billy Cox on bass. 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 he always was, Hendrix 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 that, in 1970, was 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 - only about a 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. Both the music and film Jimi Plays Berkeley reflect all of these things.
The early show starts off with Hendrix purposely giving the audience just what it wants. He caters to them, appropriately, with a "Fire" opener followed by an impromptu version of "Johnny B. Goode" that leaves every other recorded version of this classic tune tame by comparison. Roars of approval greet his solo, which he really did play with his teeth. One can clearly hear the attack of enamel on metal.
With the audience firmly captivated, he then plays one for himself, unleashing one of the most searing blues ever heard in "Hear My Train a Comin'."
Early in this set, Hendrix seems to be vacillating between what he feels like playing and what he knows will please the audience and/or the eventual film viewing audience; thus, he follows with the perennial crowd pleaser, "Foxy Lady." Then it's back to following his muse, and after a brief monologue that alluding to the current political climate, we're treated to the first version of "Machine Gun" from this night. Hendrix creates a collage of sound using his guitar pyrotechnics to dramatic effect, while Mitch adds tension with military drumming. It is nothing short of enthralling and ,although it's debatable whether the audience appreciated it at the time, this performance is both terrifying and sublime.
Now totally engaged with his muse, Hendrix whips out "Freedom," one of the new songs he'd been developing in the studio. This is still in the early stages but shows great promise; and he's obviously enjoying it. Another great blues tune follows with the always fascinating "Red House." This version doesn't extend out as far as some from the era, but is amazing nonetheless. Hendrix was a bottomless pit of ideas when it came to slow blues, and this is yet another example of his awe-inspiring technical ability. When he solos, every note seethes with emotion.
The Band of Gypsies number, "Message Of Love," came next, followed by another new number, "Ezy Rider." Both are engaging and the trio is playing remarkably well, but Hendrix must have sensed he was loosing the audience with this unfamiliar material. Easily remedied, he chooses to give them more of what they want and, sure enough, the crowd immediately responds to "The Star Spangled Banner." This version contains all the flash and pyrotechnics the audience was craving, but one can tell he's on autopilot. Before segueing into "Purple Haze," Hendrix lets the audience and the future film viewers in on how he really felt by looking right into the camera and saying "Big deal!"
The show ends with his signature song at the time, "Voodoo Child (Slight Return)" and, of course, he pulls out all the stops, dazzling the audience with one last barrage of sound and fluid, psychedelically-drenched guitar pyrotechnics that left the audience dazed, inevitably - if not in awe.
-Written by Alan Bershaw
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