In June of 1967, Jimi Hendrix walked out on stage at the Monterey Pop Festival a relatively unknown guitar player in the US. By the time he left the stage, Hendrix’ Stratocaster was a smoldering mess of smashed parts – literally – and America was put on notice.
By the following May, Hendrix, bassist Noel Redding, and drummer Mitch Mitchell were the headliners for the East Coast’s first major rock festival (that’s right, folks: we still had 15 months to go before Woodstock) to be held in Miami, FL. The trio was in the thick of studio sessions for their Electric Ladyland album in New York City at the time of the Miami Pop Festival; perhaps their flying trip down to Florida served as a chance to blow off studio tensions and let the juices flow, taking risks without the chance for a re-take. Whatever the inspiration was that fueled them, Hendrix and his bandmates played some remarkable music at Miami Pop; what may be even more remarkable is the fact that the recordings from that day have never been released … until now.
Jimi Hendrix Experience: Miami Pop Festival (Experience Hendrix LLC/Legacy Recordings) is a lush sonic time capsule of the trio in full psychedelicized flight, captured at the time by the talented Eddie Kramer, the recognized authority of Hendrix’ recorded work. Hand-in-hand with the Miami Pop album release is the home video edition of the PBS American Masters documentary Jimi Hendrix – Hear My Train A Comin’, featuring previously-unreleased live performances (including songs from the Experience’s Miami Pop sets).
We last spoke with Experience Hendrix archivist John McDermott around the release of 2010’s West Coast Seattle Boy box set. McDermott’s perspective is an interesting one: a fan since discovering Jimi’s music while in his teens (after Hendrix’ death in 1970), McDermott combines the mind of a historian with deep passion and respect for the man whose music he curates. John McDermott wasn’t on hand for any of the shows in the Hendrix vault, but he can tell you all about them. He knows his stuff – and loves what he does.
John was kind enough to talk with us about the Miami Pop album, the Hear My Train A Comin’ DVD … and to reflect on what might have been.
BR: John, I’ve never recognized the Miami Pop Festival as a stepping stone between Monterey and Woodstock … and I think that’s true for a lot of people.
JM: I think that Michael Lang’s role is certainly an important one – as one of the promoters of both the Miami festival and Woodstock. Unlike Woodstock, there wasn’t any film available from Miami until now, so fans didn’t get to see how unique it was.
I think it’s kind of fascinating to look at the composition of the audience at Miami. Just because it happened a year after Monterey, it isn’t necessarily the “peace and love” crowd there. You could see how there was an organic movement working its way throughout the US … there was a whole different feel to the crowd at Monterey and some of the other places where they had embraced that music more quickly than what Miami had.
Listening to the Miami Pop show I think it’s fair and safe to say that we wouldn’t have this caliber of recordings if it wasn’t for the talents of Eddie Kramer.
Well, Eddie is a brilliant engineer who understood Jimi’s approach, which was really important – particularly in that era. And I agree: he did a great job. Believe it or not, it was Eddie’s first time ever capturing Jimi live.
I didn’t realize that.
Yeah. I think it meant a lot to Eddie; he was really excited at the chance to be able to record Jimi in concert. You hear that attack; that energy … all those things come across that you probably wouldn’t hear if it had been an engineer unfamiliar with somebody as unique and dynamic as Jimi.
Especially some of the “warts and all” that make it so good. Where have these recordings been? Were they part of the archives when you joined Experience Hendrix in 1995?
We actually found them – both the film and the tape – ten years or so ago. It had taken a lot of searching and we were able to uncover what was essentially film footage of a handful of songs and the multi-tracks to the performances.
We hoped that more footage could be found and began researching to see if we could find any remaining materials, as we knew that was something all fans would want. I spent really a lot of time tracing leads – I mean, right down to the original cameramen. Unfortunately, nothing materialized.
Finally we said, “Okay – this is how we’ll go about it: we’ll present it the best we can, in a way that makes sense and that fans will enjoy.” And what started as a pure Miami Pop Festival project evolved into the opportunity to turn it into an American Masters documentary.
Eddie’s audio recordings are amazing. How were they recorded originally and what form were they in?
They were 1” 8-tracks that were recorded using the Criteria Studios sound truck. The Alberts – Ron and Howard, the legendary brothers who were engineers at Criteria down in Miami – were also on site, so you had a lot of talented people on board.
There are 11 tracks on the CD – two of them listed as bonuses. What’s the breakdown on when they were recorded during Jimi’s sets?
There were supposed to be four short sets over two days, but the second day was rained out. It’s hard to believe – here in the age of festivals such as Bonnaroo or Lollapalooza – that the artists would perform in the afternoon and then come back and perform again in the evening.
Right on. So everything’s from the 18th – the 19th was rained out completely.
That’s right. We have presented songs from both of the sets on the 18th as an album with the two duplicate songs from the afternoon set as bonuses.
Let’s talk about some of those tasty imperfections we mentioned earlier – the tuning opening segment, for instance. What everybody needs to remember is that these guys didn’t have strobe tuners down by their feet – they’re tuning by ear on stage. And, of course, it sounds like the Marshall stacks are just smoldering, already on the verge of melting down … you get a sense of just how much power they had to work with.
One of the things that’s interesting about this era is that it really was an event – it’s not like Jimi’s putting on a show and then heading off somewhere else. Festivals – particularly of this era – were in the moment. Jimi didn’t hit the stage with the light cues all programmed and with the setlist already made … it just wasn’t that kind of thing.
I think that Jimi’s philosophy – I’ve never heard it explained this way, but looking at it from a historian’s point of view – I think he really felt that when the audience and band came together, something would happen and be shared. It was a communal experience, with giving and taking. It was not a traditional “show”; this was a guy who’d been on the Chitlin’ Circuit and knew about being part of a “show.” Jimi thought this was a much more honest, open kind of a cultural connection.
The idea of an artist just coming on stage and explaining, “Hey, give us a minute; let’s get this right; it’s worth the wait” – and then playing is unfathomable today. “The real thing’s going to start in a minute; this doesn’t have to be Vaudeville here; as soon we’re ready, we’re going to launch into it.” It’s something you don’t see, but back then it was commonplace at a Jimi Hendrix concert.
Oh, it’s so cool. And then once they’re done tuning, Jimi says, “Thank you very much for waiting – and now we’d like to do our second song of the evening …”
Followed by that wild raga/jam into “Hey Joe” … I’ve never heard the Experience follow that path into “Hey Joe” before.
It’s incredible – absolutely incredible. A beautiful, bluesier tempo than the original … it’s just fantastic.
Honestly? It’s probably the best version I’ve ever heard of a song we’ve all grown up with.
Or “Fire” – that’s a song that he’d already played many, many times but there’s a bend he does that’s just other-worldly.
Jimi was always ready with a curve ball to bring to the game. That’s what makes these live releases so exciting. It isn’t as if it’s the same show as Toledo or wherever … it’s a truly unique, spontaneous creation by Jimi.
Buddy Miles, who drummed with Jimi in the Band Of Gypsys, was great – and I’d have to be a fool to say otherwise. But to me, Mitch Mitchell was one of the best wingmen Jimi ever had.
There’s no doubt there was a really unique rapport between Mitch and Jimi – and it was an integral part of the musical connectivity of the band. Mitch’s role was not as a traditional timekeeper. When you listen to “Tax Free” and how easily he shifts time, for example – they’d never played that song that way before. All those things are unspoken; they were communicating with just head nods and cues to each other.
When you think about how great Jimi was, you also have to acknowledge Mitch and Noel, as well. Jimi raised their game to that level – which is what a true artist can do: make the people around him better. In this instance, I think Jimi did just that with Mitch and Noel.
Mitch flowed from the deftest touch on the cymbals to big, powerful fills. Listen to some of his speed and dexterity: he’s off the chart.
I think sometimes the band’s dynamics as a whole are overlooked.
Everything wasn’t always ready to burst into flame – although at the end of “Hear My Train A Comin’” Jimi says, “These amplifiers are blowing out and it’s really very bad, trying to play on the ashes, you know? That’s all that’s left – nothing but ashes.” (laughter) But there really was a powerful ebb and flow among all three of them.
And they deserve the credit. Let’s face it: it wasn’t like they’d met in high school and had been friends for years – Mitch and Noel were two guys that [Experience manager] Chas Chandler and Jimi hired to be in the band … and they chose wisely. The pair of them turned out to be incredible guys who were given the opportunity – much like Jimi was given by Chas – and they nailed it. They rose to the occasion and were fantastic. They were up for the challenge.
This album uniquely captures how tight that band was in ’68 – and the enthusiasm of the three guys going after it on stage. Even a casual fan can hear just how powerful they were as a band.
Keep on a’jammin’ – click HERE to read the rest of my feature interview with Jimi Hendrix archivist John McDermott on Jambands.com