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March Album of the Month: Jimi Hendrix’s ‘People, Hell & Angels’

Date: 2013-03-08

by Steve Hochman

People, Hell & AngelsThe first sound on this set of previously unreleased Hendrix recordings — the solo, straightforward and grounded Stratocaster licks that introduce the song “Earth Blues” — belies the turmoil that surrounded the musician when the session took place in mid-December, 1969. In the liner notes, album co-producer John McDermott recounts a time of business conflicts, a recent drug-charge trial (acquitted) and the recent defection of his Experience drummer Mitch Mitchell among the hurdles to Hendrix’s progress. And that in itself was daunting, as he wrestled with his own artistic ambitions, seemingly at a crossroads and burdened with expectations, self-imposed and otherwise, on a level few had ever experienced.

But here, with his Band of Gypsys — his old Army pal Billy Cox on bass and cheerful funk master Buddy Miles on drums — he seems to have found sanctuary. People, Hell & Angels, featuring ten 1969 recordings plus two from 1968, showcases a Hendrix revisiting his roots, reacquainting himself with some of the simple joys of music. There’s blues, of course, driven by his innate expressiveness both as a guitarist and singer. And in two full-on soul-funk workouts there are echoes of his days on the Chitlin’ circuit with the Isley Brothers and King Curtis.

Throughout he employs much of his familiar bag of tricks — octaved lead runs, butterfly flurries of hammer-on trills, chunky chording, wah-wah excursions and so on — but all with an offhanded ease, nothing sounding forced or intended as a “statement.” This, in many moments, is Hendrix at his most relaxed, most natural.

Which isn’t to say mellow. On the contrary, “Earth Blues” and the 1968 “Somewhere” from a session with Stephen Stills on bass rather than Cox, start the album off in pure power-trio mode. The former is a very compelling contrast to the version heard on the second posthumous album Rainbow Bridge, which featured multiple overdubs (including the Ronettes’ backing vocals). The latter, a relic of the Electric Ladyland sessions, also provides a solid alternative to two released versions (one from 1975’s controversial Crash Landing, on which Allen Douglas saved only Hendrix’s part and added new backing). This version shows Stills and Miles as a dynamic rhythm section in support of the leader.

And “Hear My Train A Comin’,” perhaps the most known Hendrix title on this collection, is one of the first recordings he made with Cox and Miles, a classically soaring Jimi blues exploration and a tone that’s extended on the next track, “Bleeding Heart.”

It’s with “Izabella” and “Easy Blues,” though, that we get hints of a “new” Jimi Hendrix. Recorded right after Woodstock, with Mitchell still in the fold with Cox, but crucially supplemented by two percussionists and — gasp! — rhythm guitarist Larry Lee, these expand on the Experience experiments. The irresistible “Izabella” sounds like a coulda-been hit, while instrumental “Easy Blues” heads almost into jazz territory.

The biggest surprises might be the two funk numbers. “Let Me Love You” reunited Hendrix with singer-saxophonist Lonnie Youngblood and a soul-power band, clearly having a blast inaugurating a new Ampex board at the Record Plant. “Mojo Man,” though, is something more. Old Harlem pal Albert Allen takes the lead vocals as Hendrix exuberantly leads a horn-driven band (credits, apparently, lost save for piano, manned by legendary, if erratic, New Orleans figure James Booker) into regions of soul, both solid and psychedelic, building on James Brown with as much personal character as Sly Stone was doing at the same time.

And while seeing the title “Crash Landing” among the songs may make some Hendrix fans cringe, rightfully given that prominent ‘70s misjudgment of the album which bore its name, this serves as a rehabilitation. As McDermott’s notes state, it was a song fraught with difficulties as Hendrix couldn’t quite get what he wanted out of another new line-up variation (Cox, with drummer Rocky Isaac, two percussionists and an “unknown” organist). And this version, as much as anything on the album, is more an idea being tested out than a complete thought, so to speak. But it’s also not just a throwaway by any means.

Credit to the team behind this — McDermott with the guitarist’s sister Janie Hendrix and Electric Ladyland engineer Eddie Kramer — for getting the best out of these sessions without messing with them. Very little fiddling was done beyond merely brightening and strengthening the sound qualities. It continues the recent string of well-presented, thoughtfully assembled sets — including 2010’s Valley of Neptune and 2011’s live Winterland box set — which have not just lived up to but enhanced this singular legacy.

“We’re fortunate to have Eddie Kramer,” McDermott said in an interview with “That’s all it needs. You don’t have to do anything to it. That’s what we’ve tried to do, and people really like what we do. They like Jimi!”

Overall, he says, this showcases Hendrix’s burgeoning visions as a producer, seeking new combinations and forms of expression.

“This isn’t a ‘lost album’ or a mystery,” McDermott said. “But Jimi working as an artist and producer and giving a signal of what the future might have been.”

Perhaps. It might be a stretch, though, to say that there are any real revelations here, any epiphanies. Still, maybe there is something, even in one track that could be deemed a throwaway, the tossed-off Hendrix-Cox-Miles jam titled “Villanova Junction Blues,” all 1:48 of it, which closes the album. It’s epiphany is merely that Hendrix, at this point in time, with so much extraneous noise in his life, could sound so natural, so at ease.