Jimi Hendrix: Live At The Isle Of Wight

Jimi Hendrix: Live At The Isle Of Wight (1970)
Image Entertainment

Not many people can change the course of music history to the extent Jimi Hendrix did during his short, intense career a career that ended abruptly in 1970. Even today, 30 years after Jimi’s days of success, his spirit can be felt literally every time you turn on the radio and listen to a rock tune.

Jimi Hendrix was one of the most influential musicians of his time. He changed the face of rock and blues music forever by challenging both to be greater than they were. Truly "blue" and uncompromisingly "heavy" are the adjectives that spring to mind. When one looks at the time he came rocketing from obscurity, the evidence of the revolution wrought by his style is apparent. Jimi was the first successful musician who dared to blur the lines between blues and rock. Too heavy for real blues and too bluesy for real rock, Jimi created his own terms and captured present and future generations with his virtuoso guitar- and songwriting skills. When he picked up the guitar, he inspired legions of other guitarists, people who not only copied his playing but attempted to find the spirit that stirred within him. His tone was unique and had a range like none other, making efficient use of many tonal shades. The sweetest glissandi and harmony lines, the most atrocious riffs and dexterous fast runs Jimi mastered them all with an ease unknown in the world of rock. Combined with his wailing, husky vocals and his eccentric appearance, he became a symbol for rebellion from his first public stage appearance. Unfortunately, Jimi Hendrix died an untimely and mysterious death at the age of 28 in his apartment in London on September 18, 1970, at the peak of his 3-year career. It would take 8long years before another guitar player would change the way we look at the rock guitar, taking center stage in the form of an energetic, smiling young man by the name of Edward Van Halen. Real legends are rare, and since Jimi Hendrix’s time, only Ed Van Halen and Steve Vai can be said to have changed rock music and the perception of rock guitar forever. It is hardly surprising that both Ed and Steve are heavily influenced by Jimi, and both would never have been able to rise to the occasion had Jimi not built the foundation for them. Vastly underrated today, it is hard for many people to imagine what made Jimi so special and influential, especially since lightning fast shredders can be found on every corner and appear on almost every recording. Unfortunately, most of them lack a vision and identity – both of which Jimi clearly had and inspired in other people.

To fully understand Jimi’s influence on rock guitar we need to take a look at rock music before his time. The rock of that time was mostly played in clubs in front of small audiences who simply wanted to escape their day-to-day life. It was played loud, but usually wasn’t overly aggressive at least, not in terms we would describe aggressive today. Most of all, there was no such thing as a distorted guitar… until Jimi entered. He took his Marshall stack and cranked it to the point that every single note resulted in a distorted sound never heard before. It was the same ferocious attitude he used when playing his music, using blues patterns and themes, twisting and distorting them to the point that they became unmistakable rock riffs. He was daring enough to introduce completely new chords to the rock world, chords that had only been used in jazz and blues and were usually considered "uncool" for use in contemporary rock. Jimi didn’t care less and embraced them to the point that one chord (..7#9) in particular is referred to as the Hendrix chord amongst rock guitarists today. Its tension and screaming quality when distorted had been completely overlooked by other guitarists before and it was only after Jimi had used it extensively in a number of his songs that other guitarists picked it up. Today it is a classic chord that belongs into every rock guitarist’s repertoire, just as regular power chords do.

Image Entertainment have now released Jimi’s last concert on DVD. It was at the "Isle Of Wight" festival in 1970, held only two weeks before his untimely death. It shows us a charismatic and pumped-up Jimi in a memorable performance. Having said this, I need to come up with a word of warning: Jimi Hendrix live is not for the faint-hearted and many people prefer his studio recordings over his live performances. While his studio performances are very tight and to the point, his live sets have a totally different quality and a wilder, unencumbered atmosphere.

Within his live performances the quality ranges from "completely tripped out" to "excellent". This specific concert ranges somewhere in between. It is not as much of a highlight as his infamous Woodstock show, but it is also not as bad as some other material that has been floating around. It would be wrong to judge Jimi and his works based on a single performance. His grip was too powerful and his influence too strong to be simply boiled down like this. In his studio works, Jimi was a clever songwriter with an unparalleled vision who was constantly exploring new technologies. It often makes me wonder what Jimi would be doing these days if he were still alive. With all the technology available today, it is impossible to fathom what his intuition would make of it… apart from the fact that it would certainly be very exciting. Steve Vai’s thick layers of sound, his inventive composing style and innovative guitar playing might be an indication of what a visionary like Jimi could have done. On stage, he turned into an angry animal and relied mostly on his instincts and amazing playing skills, bombarding his audiences with a cacophony of noises, sounds, and melodies. Large parts of his shows consisted of improvisations that became quite exaggerated and lengthy at times. During his shows, it always seemed like Jimi was going into a different world, and the longer the show was, the more you could watch and hear this intense shift in him. Starting out easy, he kept pumping himself up, getting more and more into the music with closed eyes to the point that he almost collapsed or toppled off the stage in trance.

His "Isle Of Wight" concert, which is presented on this disc, features many of Jimi’s best material, supported by his "Experience" band, with Billy Cox on bass and Mitch Mitchell on drums. "Freedom", "Voodoo Chile", "All Along The Watchtower", "Red House", and "Machine Gun" are only a few of the highlights on this disc. During this infamous concert, Jimi was also playing "New Rising Sun" and "Lover Man", both of which are unfortunately missing from this recording for some reason.

The image quality of this DVD is very good. Unfortunately there are some flaws in the original film material, but since it is the only available document of this historic concert, there is nothing anyone could do about it. There is no technical flaw in the disc however and colors are more saturated than ever. It brings out the best of the light show that had been set up for Jimi’s show that night, and of course his psychedelic, rainbow-colored outfit. The disc contains an uncompressed <$PCM,PCM> soundtrack that maintains the source material’s original fidelity. Due to the age and the limited recording technology back then, the sound is clearly muffled and distorted at times. Still it pays proper homage to Jimi’s music and captures the overall experience perfectly. As a matter of fact, I am sure the people in the front rows didn’t have nearly as good a sound as this disc offers, when they were struck by the infernal volume of his Marshall stacks. For many of us, documents like this one are the only way to experience and understand Jimi’s genius and the impact he had on the music world. Having heard much about Jimi’s love/hate relationship with his guitar and the desperation he puts into his playing, it is fascinating to see him carelessly throwing the guitar to the floor immediately after he had finished playing the last note. Those are things you can’t experience on a recording. You have to see it to believe it and there is currently nothing better out there that allows you to watch Jimi close up. Clearly this disc stands out and is a collectible for everyone who carries Jimi in his heart.