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March 23, 2018

Both Sides of the Sky , a new album from the Jimi Hendrix vaults

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Many of these surviving studio recordings find Hendrix working with varying lineups of musicians — including surprises like Stephen Stills and Joni Mitchell

For a guy who only put out three true, studio albums during his lifetime, the Jimi Hendrix discography has become massive. Almost 50 years after his death, compilations of unreleased recordings continue to emerge from the vault, testifying both to his prolific studio output and the continued hunger for more Hendrix. Both Sides of the Sky is the latest such excavation, and will both relieve some of that hunger and still leave the listener somewhat unsatisfied.

Both Sides of the Sky is, according to leading Hendrix historian John McDermott’s liner notes, “the third volume in a trilogy of albums [following 2010’s Valleys of Neptune and 2013’s People, Hell & Angels] intended to present the best and most significant unissued studio recordings remaining in the Hendrix archive.” To its credit it does not, like so many earlier releases, employ posthumous overdubs, sometimes by musicians who didn’t even work with Jimi. And while much unreleased Hendrix has circulated on bootlegs, the sound is clear and of a higher standard than most unofficial discs. Three of the thirteen tracks (“Georgia Blues,” “Things I Used to Do,” and “Power of Soul”) were actually previously issued, but they’re obscure enough to be new to many fans, and even “Power of Soul” is a previously unavailable extended version.

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Still, it’s like listening to bootlegged takes with high-grade fidelity and packaging, because it’s a bit of a jumble of unrelated tracks, rather than something that would have cohered into an album (or even comprise an alternative version of an album). Most of the cuts are from 1969 and 1970 (though there are a couple 1968 recordings), a time when Jimi was struggling to concoct a studio follow-up to his last album with the original Experience, 1968’s Electric Ladyland. This is by no means a quasi-simulation of what would have been his next LP (to which the 1997 compilation First Rays of the New Rising Sun probably comes closest), but does concentrate on material laid down during that era.

Like much of his work that survives from that time, these find Hendrix working with varying lineups of musicians and struggling to some degree to find some direction. The tunes are often, though not always, bluesier on the whole than his Experience recordings, and a couple (“Things I Used to Do” and “Mannish Boy”) are covers of actual blues classics. But although Jimi’s instrumental prowess remained awesome, his songwriting and arrangements lacked the focus that had characterized his first three albums.

The best songs on Both Sides of the Sky tend to be the ones that have been available in different versions. The one here of “Lover Man” from December 15, 1969, with Band of Gypsys rhythm section Billy Cox on bass and Buddy Miles on drums, is a clear highlight. Dynamic and propulsive, it has the razor-sharp bounce of the best blues-rock, along the lines of the cover of Howlin’ Wolf’s “Killing Floor” that kicked off his Monterey Pop Festival set. Dig especially the part in the instrumental break where the trio unexpectedly detours into a takeoff on the “Batman” riff, not overdoing the novelty before heading back into the heart of the tune — which, unlike many tracks Hendrix cut during this period, doesn’t overstay its welcome; clocking in at a concise three minutes.

Along the same bluesy lines, though less impressive, is “Hear My Train a ‘Comin’,” the sole number here to feature all three members of the original Jimi Hendrix Experience. There have been live acoustic and electric versions on previous releases, and this one sits between those in its seven-minute length, though it’s ultimately a rather average and conventional workout compared to his more imaginative blues compositions.

One of the most familiar songs here is “Stepping Stone,” which Band of Gypsys put on a 1970 single. Recorded in November 1969, this considerably shorter (by a minute) version was cut a few months earlier than the one on the 45, and has a less funk-inclined, more stripped-down feel. It’s kind of cool, but sounds a little like a rehearsal compared to the single, which has fuller vocals in particular.

Some of the other songs on Both Sides of the Sky, alas, are more meandering and less memorable. “Power of Soul” seems like a work in progress, with a too-long intro on which Hendrix wordlessly scats his vocals, and a too-long final portion in which he seems to be running out of ideas for lyrics. The moody instrumental “Jungle,” on which Miles is his sole accompanist, is a nicely atmospheric showcase for his work on Uni-Vibe tone-control pedal, but sounds like a backing track awaiting lyrics that never came. As the liner notes point out, it also shows the influence of Curtis Mayfield, from whose guitar playing Hendrix drew some of his more delicate work.

Another song that showed some promise, but was evidently left to linger, was “Send My Love to Linda,” recorded on January 16, 1970. There’s an unplugged feel to the first part of the song, on which Jimi’s guitar supplies most of the anchor to the melancholy, slightly ominous melody before Cox and Miles power a full rock arrangement on the second half of the track. Hendrix even fools around with flamenco-like riffs at the beginning of the cut. It actually sounds more creative than much of the material he was writing at the time, but Jimi was often having a hard time taking his sketches to the finish line, and this seems like one of numerous examples.

Both onstage and in the studio, Hendrix was often eager to play with musicians from outside the Experience and Band of Gypsys, and a few of the tracks on this CD feature unusual guests. Johnny Winter handles second guitar, with a rhythm section of Dallas Taylor (Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young’s first drummer) and Billy Cox, on an adequate cover of Guitar Slim’s “Things I Used to Do.” It could be argued, however, that any guitar hero guesting on a Hendrix track makes for one guitarist too many.

“Georgia Blues,” though recorded in March 1969, is something of a throwback to Hendrix’s days as a sideman to a gaggle of soul, blues, and R&B musicians. Indeed, it’s more a track on which Hendrix guests than one on which he uses guests, as Lonnie Youngblood takes the vocals and plays saxophone, with a drummer, bassist, and organist whose names will be unfamiliar to everyone. Previously available on the 2005 compilation Martin Scorsese Presents the Blues: Jimi Hendrix, this routine blues-soul effort is a rather unmemorable footnote to Jimi’s discography.

More interesting are two September 30, 1969 tracks on which fellow superstar Stephen Stills not so much guests as takes over. With Hendrix, Mitch Mitchell and pianist Duane Hitchings, Stills sings and plays organ on “$20 Fine,” an original composition of his that he would not release with Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young, or indeed on any disc. The energetic, mid-tempo, slightly unfinished-sounding tune is kind of by-numbers late-‘60s Stills. But, both Hendrix and (more particularly) Stills completists won’t be able to find it anywhere else.

Better is a Stills-led version, from the same day, of Joni Mitchell’s “Woodstock,” soon to be a hit for Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young. This take (with Stills on vocals and organ, Hendrix on bass, and Miles on drums) lacks the trademark harmonies of CSNY’s famous version, but is quite respectable and has a fine, committed Stills vocal, even if the arrangement’s a little on the basic side. It also carries considerable historical interest as it’s probably the first studio recording of this song by anyone, predating CSNY’s recording for the Déjà Vu album. Mitchell had, after all, only written the song a few weeks before this session, shortly after the actual Woodstock festival (at which both Hendrix and CSNY played) took place in August 1969.

Just two tracks on Both Sides of the Sky predate 1969. Taped on May 2, 1968, the spooky instrumental “Cherokee Mist” features only Hendrix and Mitchell. Other versions have come out on compilations, and this one is notable for Jimi’s work on wah-wah, feedback, and, more unusually, the Coral electric sitar. Unlike some other instrumental outtakes in the Hendrix catalog, it doesn’t sound like a backing track awaiting lyrics/vocals, and works effectively as a wordless mood piece — if more so in the first part of the seven-minute track than the more drifting final three minutes.

Another 1968 outtake on Both Sides of the Sky also features only Hendrix and Mitchell, and was recorded on January 28 of that year. As “Angel,” the song (here titled “Sweet Angel”) was one of the best Hendrix compositions to be released after his death, first emerging on the 1971 LP The Cry of Love. He’d been developing it for more than two years, however, though this early version is instrumental. In that sense, it’s a backing track that’s missing lyrics, with Hendrix playing not just guitar, but also bass and, more unexpectedly, vibraphone. Such is the strength of the melody that even this instrumental sketch has an engaging, shimmering beauty, though it would gain a great deal of strength when Hendrix put lyrics and vocals onto the famous later version.

Just as “Angel” doesn’t compare to “Sweet Angel,” so Both Sides of the Sky does not compare to Hendrix’s proper studio albums, or even his best live recordings and compilations. It’s nonetheless an interesting adjunct to his core discography, even if it lacks stone classics or revelatory insights into previously undocumented directions. If it’s the last of a trilogy of “the best and most significant unissued studio recordings remaining in the Hendrix archive,” one wonders if there’s anything comparable left even in the leftovers — though with the consistent mining of Jimi’s legacy by the Hendrix estate, you can never count that out.






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