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Are You Experienced?
By Andy Argyrakis
From the pages of Illinois Entertainer

What can possibly be revealed about James Marshall Hendrix (you know him as Jimi) that hasn’t already been articulated? Electricity-doused innovator. Arguably the greatest axe slinger of all time. A guitar god gone too soon. An indelible legacy that will live forever. All tried and true topics indeed, but in the case of the latter, one that’s earning a fresh coat of paint thanks to an all-star tour of retro rockers and new schooled six string slappers.

Enter Experience Hendrix, the biennial, multi-act bill that turns four this year, channeling its namesake’s genius through a marathon evening of individual snippet sets, one of a kind collaborations and an almighty jam session or two just to amplify the subject’s superiority. And we’re not just talking some questionable cover band, but a laundry list of remarkably authentic replicators, including Joe Satriani, Jonny Lang, Hubert Sumlin, Eric Johnson, Kenny Wayne Shepherd, Aerosmith’s Brad Whitford, Doyle Bramhall II, the Isley Brothers’ Ernie Isley, Living Colour, Double Trouble’s Chris Layton, Sacred Steel featuring Robert Randolph, Susan Tedeschi, Los Lobos’ David Hidalgo and Cesar Rosas, plus The Jimi Hendrix Experience and Band of Gypsys’ Billy Cox.

“The tour itself is just a fantastic coming together of talent, focus and heart from everybody loving the music of Hendrix helping bring it together,” says Satriani, a headliner in his own right who cites the psychedelic star as an apparent influence. “It’s difficult getting people from all parts of the music world to play together and pull it off, but the thing I love so much about Jimi’s music is that even though it was written so many years ago, it’s continuously unifying. We’re all incredible fans on the tour and I think that magic hangs over everybody. It makes everybody pull together and compliment each other the best they can, but quite frankly, we’re all interested in checking each other out as well. It’s a dream come true to be a fan and entertainer at the same time.”

Another major player in the mutual admiration society is 28-year-old Lang, who despite his relative youth, has performed with everyone from The Rolling Stones to B.B. King, Buddy Guy and Aerosmith. Even with all those highlights, he cities Hendrix as the ultimate tag team destination given his technical prowess and unmistakable charisma.

“The biggest thing I draw from him is just his sense of melody and his approach is so much different than a lot of guitarists,” Lang contends. “I obviously didn’t know him, but it seems to me like he approached it from a melodic side rather than just trying to play fast riffs. Aside from being a great virtuoso, he was a genius musically. You hear a lot of innovation in his melodies, especially for that time, and in the overall structure of his songs.”

While the majority of the artists were too young to ever collaborate with Hendrix or even meet him personally, Ernie Isley from the Isley Brothers didn’t just know the man behind the music, but they lived in the same house from 1963-1965 just prior to finding global fame. While its common knowledge to faithful fans, a lot of casual listeners might not realize Hendrix played guitar on tour for that very soul group during that time frame.

“Their guitar player at the time quit and my bother O’Kelly tracked him down,” recalls Ernie, who was in junior high school at the time and hadn’t yet joined the family troupe. “O’Kelly said ‘can you play something for me?’ and Jimi said ‘I can’t because my guitar is in the pawn shop.’ So they went down to the pawn shop and got the guitar back, but it turned out Jimi didn’t have strings because he was broke. So O’Kelly got him strings, and within three minutes, it was obvious he had the chops. So he came on board, but didn’t have a place to stay, which is when he moved in with us.”

Although Hendrix’s talents were undeniable, his actual instrument was a little scruffy, according to Ernie, in turn prompting O’Kelly to buy him a new one. “Jimi asked for a white Stratocaster, O’Kelly said ‘yes’ and Jimi said ‘oh my God.’ So he virtually came into the house with a brand new guitar, he didn’t have to pay for rent, food or laundry and was just there like a member of the family. Of course the other guys hated him for it and they didn’t see him until rehearsal, but when he plugged in, they said ‘damn, he’s star of the band now!’’

After his jaunt with the Isley Brothers ended, alongside several other short lived stints, a move to London prompted the formation of The Jimi Hendrix Experience and also allowed the leader to be surrounded by the ever-expanding rock n’ roll explosion. Besides meeting members of The Rolling Stones, The Who and Eric Clapton (then of Cream), Hendrix also basked in the blues scene. In fact, 78-year-old guitarist Hubert Sumlin, best known for his tenure with Howlin’ Wolf’s band, can testify to that greatness firsthand, thanks to multiple impromptu performances with the late great on tour.

“You know I love Jimi and I loved him from the first day I saw him,” the Wisconsin resident ensures. “We met in London when [Wolf and his band] were playing Royal Albert Hall and in walked Jimi straight to the bandstand with his earrings, big hat and guitar. We were flying back to America the next day and Jimi came back with us on the plane and we did it again the next night at Radio City [Music Hall]. Wolf hugged Jimi, thanked him and said ‘you’re all right. I hope you make a million.’”

An understatement indeed, but a foreshadowing nonetheless as Hendrix quickly conquered the European market with his distortion-drenched infamy, later crossing over to Stateside audiences thanks to iconic appearances at 1967’s Monterey Pop Festival, 1969’s Woodstock Festival and the 1970’s Isle of Wight Festival. Throughout that time frame, The Jimi Hendrix Experience cranked out Are You Experienced? (“Purple Haze,” “Hey Joe” and “The Wind Cries Mary”), Axis: Bold as Love (“Little Wing,” “Castles Made of Sand,” “Wait Until Tomorrow”) and Electric Ladyland (“All Along the Watchtower,” “Gypsy Eyes,” “Have You Ever Been To Electric Ladyland”), plus the eponymous Band of Gypsys live album.

“So I’m sitting in study hall, sometime in 1967, and the guys near me are reading about the Are You Experienced? album in a magazine and see that Jimi played with the Isley Brothers,” Ernie recalls. “So everyone starts asking me about that and I say ‘not only did I know him, but he lived in my house,’ to which everybody asked ‘why didn’t you ever say anything?’ The truth was, no one ever asked and seemed to just soak up all the information from what they heard on radio or in magazines. So then someone asked ‘who’s better, Clapton or Hendrix?’ and I said ‘Hendrix, not because of what you hear on the records, but from what I heard him play without an amplifier.’

I remember being about 11 with my math and social studies book on the dining room table while he was playing guitar as an ambulance went by and he tried to make a guitar sound to match it. I relate to the person and continue to relate in a different way than virtually anybody else because of him living in the house and my older brothers being in the business. I can still remember playing kickball in the backyard and them hearing him and the band in the basement starting up ‘Twist and Shout.’ We’d all look at Jimi, and even though he might not be looking at you, he’d hit a note, sustain it, look around like there was something flying around in the room, then catch it, pick back up where he was in the song, then look over at you and wink.”

On a purely practical note, Satriani’s studied all the above studio and live recordings, coming to the conclusion that his talent was absolutely inbred and nothing that could ever be trained, mimicked or copied to exactly the same degree. “[Growing up] when Jimi’s music would come through the stereo speakers, I was transfixed and I couldn’t figure out why I was feeling the way I did, but it was completely cathartic. ‘What was that?’ I asked my siblings and it got me started on my own journey that day of who I was and what I was doing, which eventually led me to pick up guitar. Technically the guy was so innovative in what he did and his technique was so amazing. He sounded like he never practiced a day in his life and that he was playing completely from the heart, making it up as he went along and it felt like he was doing it just for you. None of it could ever be learned at a clinic. All the musical and physical talent was so rare- one in a million really.”

Tedeschi, a regarded solo artist in her own right and upcoming collaborator with her husband Derek Trucks (also of Allman Brothers Band fame), likens Hendrix’s brilliance and versatility to that of painter/sculptor Pablo Picasso. “He was capable of painting incredibly perfect portraits, but then another side was abstract where some like it and some don’t,” she suggests. “But I love how unique and special [Hendrix] is, and for me, it’s a blast to play his stuff. Trying to replicate Hendrix is very difficult, but everything from the words to the arrangements he came up with has a very powerful effect on people. Obviously you’re not seeing Hendrix [in this show], but it’s people who love, appreciate and are influenced by him trying to do their best. I’m just gonna play with as much heart as I can and not stress on being technically perfect. Jimi was always in the moment, surfing a wave of music, and creating an electric feeling of the audience and the band moving together.”

Given Hendrix’s vast body of work (despite his untimely death at 27-years-old chalked up to unusual, never fully explained circumstances largely attributed as chocking on his own vomit after possibly overdosing on sleeping pills), whittling down a set list is going to be an incredibly tricky task for the artists involved. Thankfully for them though, tour producer John McDermott (also author of Jimi Hendrix: An Illustrated Experience) is in the process of making those final arrangements, mixing a cavalcade of hits with deep cuts sure to stick out for more serious listeners.

“I gotta give credit to John and the rest of the crew,” echoes Satriani. “They’re doing the pacing and the pairing, trying to look at who will naturally flow together and what will be coolest from a fan’s perspective. Of course, everything’s fluid and I’m sure there will be some changes as we get underway, but there’s a lot of room for magic to happen.”

Anyone who’s caught a previous concert (and if not, there’s always 2008’s Experience Hendrix DVD or YouTube for the cheapies) can attest to the inevitable jam sessions that round out the evening, which is a hands down highlight of each set, if only for the sheer magnitude of star power on stage. But Lang cautions these segments have to be closely monitored to prevent complete chaos, especially given the quantity of musicians.

“It’s kind of hard to have so many of one type of instrument and not step on each other’s toes,” he admits. “I find myself laying out a lot or sticking to simple rhythm parts to stay out of the way when somebody’s soloing. But sometimes everybody picks the right part and it’s really great, which comes off as an inspired musical moment. As the tour progresses, it seems like everyone falls into their place, which is great because a lot of times a bunch of musicians can think there are egos trying to outdo one another, but last year, it was really refreshing to find everybody so cool and there for the bigger purpose, which is trying to do Jimi’s music right and I bet it’s gonna be the same [vibe] this year.”

While any drama between artists would certainly score some tabloid headlines, Tedeschi promises most everyone is already pals, and those who might not know one another yet, will probably have no trouble getting acquainted. “You get to see so many of your friends and people you look up to that you don’t get to all that often,” she confirms. “It’s a nice mixture of friends, family and idols. On the Hendrix tour, I’m already friends with Doyle and Hubert, who’s also one of my idols. I’ve never met Billy Cox, but I’m very excited to play with him and I’ve known Brad since I was a kid. Aerosmith was the first band I went backstage at because the guys used to go to my parents’ video store. I’ve recorded with Eric and Double Trouble in the past and toured with Jonny before, all of whom are great. So this tour is either people I’m already friends with or people I really admire and can’t wait to meet.”

More than just the joy of jamming with one another, the Experience Hendrix cast unanimously agrees it’s all about pleasing the fans, which include old school appreciators from the original era and younger generations connecting with the tunes for the first time. “They get to see all these great players devote a few hours to the music of Hendrix, which is always interesting [to old fans], but can be [eye opening] for new fans. You take ‘All Along the Watchtower,’ a song which many people are stuck on the Hendrix version, but it was actually written by Bob Dylan. Then you have people who’ve heard countless covers of ‘Little Wing’ from Sting on down, but they might not have heard the original version [by Hendrix] and seeing it live might inspire them to go back to the original.”

Adds Lang: “I think the older generation grew up understanding the context of what Jimi was playing in a little more and how important and innovative he was to the music scene. And I think younger people get into Jimi because his image is so unique. He’s got the hippie/gypsy rock guy thing from sixties going on and he’s one of, if not the, greatest guitarist of all time. It took me awhile to even understand his music because it’s so different than anything I’ve heard.”

Given all the variables everyone’s mentioned, Hendrix remains just as mythical, mesmerizing and enigmatic as he was at the peak of his all too short run of the charts. While his career may have never been fully realized, part of his legacy will always be the astounding ability to accomplish so much in such a short time span. And then there’s the fact that he literally changed the entire rock, soul and blues landscape of the time, in turn, trickling down through countless like-minded acts of today who’ve often imitated but never duplicated his distinctive delivery.

“His legacy will stand up the same way as Beethoven and Mozart,” Isley insists. “As long as someone is playing his music, it’s going to live. We [the Isley Brothers] were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1992 during the same ceremony and night as Jimi Hendrix. There was a jam session of two songs at the end, one of which was ‘Purple Haze’ and the other of which was ‘Shout.’ It was a who’s who of guitar players on stage, and I know I’m going to leave some people out, but there was The Edge from U2, Neil Young, B.B. King, Johnny Cash, Carlos Santana and I just happened to be among ‘em. I was hooking all my stuff up and someone asked ‘who’s gonna sing and play lead?’ Everyone was standing back in a line, so I said ‘okay, I’ll do it.’ There I went back in time channeling the kid with the social studies book watching Jimi play and I thought ‘if only the guys in study hall could see me now!’”

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