1970 was the year Jimi Hendrix died, but it was also a time of great creative growth for him. Free of the Experience (sort of) and free of the contractual mess that led to Band of Gypsys (more on that in a bit), he holed up in the nearly-finished Electric Lady Studios to work on his next album of material, most of which would trickle out unfinished on various compilations after he died.
For whatever reason—greedy management, according to most accounts—Hendrix had to head back out on the road for a grueling tour, playing the hits, billed as the Experience but with Noel Redding nowhere in sight, trying to play the new stuff and also enough of the hits to keep the crowds happy. The result were some of my favorite performances of his.
You can get some of the tour on official releases already, so I’ve left those off my list, though there are certainly some gems there. The US tour is represented by the Berkeley show (highlight: “Johnny B Goode,” probably, but “Straight Ahead” is also really good) and the Atlanta Pop Festival (not one of my favorites) and there’s a Blue Wild Angel record that captures his kinda-bad Isle of Wight show from August (highlight: “All Along the Watchtower”). The new material was where all the magic happened for the whole year; the older stuff mostly just sounded rote except when “Foxey Lady” got stretched out into interesting jams, and the two exceptions I put on my list. Hendrix also played the “Star Spangled Banner” at most of these shows, just as he’d played it a couple of times before Woodstock, but it’s not exactly something that you need to hear done more than once.
Here are some of my favorite performances from Hendrix’s 1970 tour, in chronological order. If you like pristine audio, you probably won’t be able to hang with most of these, but like so much lost art from the history of humankind, it’s a blessed miracle that we have what we have.
“Freedom” – LA Forum, April 25
This is the first show of the tour. “Freedom” wouldn’t be released as a single until after Hendrix was dead, but here it is in its live debut, already signaling a turn in the kind of music Hendrix was making. Instead of a heavy guitar workout or an uptempo guitar-humping pop number, “Freedom” grooves out, stretching out on top of Cox and Mitchell’s funk-but-jazzy vibe.
At the time of this show, the studio version hadn’t even been recorded yet. The transition into the bridge after the solo is a little weird, but it holds together just enough to enjoy Hendrix’s Curtis Mayfield rhythm guitar filigree. This was the first ray of the new rising sun, so to speak, for a post-Gypsys Hendrix. Also the solo kills.
“Machine Gun” – Norman, OK, May 8
This song is dedicated to the, uhh… one of them scenes… and also dedicated to the soldiers fighting in Chicago, Berkeley… Kent State… Oklahoma… but dig, check this out, a thing called “Machine Gun.”
People who know “Machine Gun” know it from the record Band of Gypsys, recorded at the Fillmore East on New Year’s Eve 1969 and New Year’s Day 1970. That version of “Machine Gun” is the canonical one, but in ’70 at various points Hendrix would stretch it out in various ways. This is probably the best one of those.
This concert was held in the fieldhouse at Oklahoma University, and it sounds like it. The guitar rings out from the back of a cave, reflected off the gym, coloring everything in a reverb that renders the drums barely audible but paints the guitar with an openness that Hendrix is clearly playing with.
It starts with a quiet, Spanish-guitar improvisation similar to the one from Woodstock, but here it wraps up quickly into some striking chords that segue to the familiar Uni-Vibe intro. From there, the verses are pretty standard, but four days after Kent State the strife is clearly on Jimi’s mind (strife being, after all, what the song is about), and the solo is even more anguished than the Fillmore East versions, shrieking atonally over the droning bass and drum riff. Like he gets lost for a second in the wash of his own blasting Marshalls, and then back to some sort of earth, but he never quite returns to playing a “regular” solo. Things degenerate into a feedback/reverb experiment before coming back to the song, such as it is.
I think this version may be especially relevant to those of us who know the feeling of standing in a big room in front of a guitar amp that’s cranked past any reasonable volume, because you can feel the guitar when you do it, and when you listen to this there’s a certain synesthesia involved, like the sound is ripping through your chest, not just coming through headphones from a 47-year-old tape reel.
He ends it trying to play “Taps” but gives up and everything trails off into the quiet. It sounds like he could’ve gone another ten minutes, if he’d been less cognizant of the fact that a room full of people came to rock out, but that would’ve been too much.
Sidebar: Band of Gypsys, January 1
The funk of Band of Gypsys never really left Hendrix. Everything he did in the brief time he had left was infused with the R&B feel of that record, like he’d found a new way to stay grounded. It’s no fun being an astronaut all the time. Just listen to the studio outtakes like “Come Down Hard on Me Baby” and the released stuff like “Night Bird Flying” and “Dolly Dagger”… the feel is totally different from the Experience. That feel came from his time with Buddy Miles and Billy Cox, even if he didn’t want to (or wasn’t allowed to, depending on who you believe) keep Miles around.
The legacy of the Band of Gypsys wasn’t just the record: it was Billy Cox, Jimi’s old friend, who he kept around with Mitch Mitchell in the studio and on the road all through 1970. Cox adds a groundedness, and a subtle flair for counterpoint, to the work Hendrix was doing in ’70, not just pounding out the root note like a rube. He doesn’t get enough praise for how good he was with Jimi. It doesn’t really come through on many of these bootlegs, because they all mostly sound bad, but listen to the studio stuff and you’ll see it.
“Message to Love” – Baltimore Civic Center, June 13
(The song starts at 27:45 in this video.)
“Message to Love” is one of the new songs that got played at every stop of the tour, and it was usually pretty straightforward, not reaching the heights of the Band of Gypsys version (or my personal favorite version, the raw and driving Woodstock take from back when it was still called “Message to the Universe).
This version is one of the lighter ones from the tour, with a great solo, a brisk tempo that fits the funkier feel of the material—and, to his credit, Mitch Mitchell is holding it down instead of wandering off into a drum solo—and even though it sounds like you’re listening to it through a cardboard tube, this sounds like it would’ve been a fun show to be at. This guitar workout here lacks the angry-ish edge that Hendrix could have, especially on the older material. This just sounds like a good groove. Hendrix rewards the crowd’s willingness to listen to new stuff (not a given on this tour) by breaking out “Hey Joe” immediately after.
“Spanish Castle Magic” – Rainbow Bridge Vibratory Color/Sound Experiment, July 30
This legendary (and legendarily ill-considered) show put Hendrix out in the middle of a field somewhere in Maui to perform for some New Age hippie thing that was also a scheme cooked up by his manager to get rich off of making a movie.
This is the opening song of the first set, more angular than usual, for a small, intimate setting, but you can tell from the video that the wind is a factor. Something was different about the fuzz pedals Hendrix was using in 1970—Fuzz Face pedals started using higher gain silicon transistors instead of the germanium ones in the originals. They were nastier, edgier, and they gave his fuzzier, harder songs a biting edge that is sometimes unpleasant. That edge is very evident here, in a way that hasn’t been smoothed out like it has on some of the official releases. This is a really short version of this song, not the drawn-out jam thing it was so many times in ’70, and it keeps it essence as a hard-hitting psychedelic workout here.
Also, watch this footage and imagine how high you’d have to be to think this was a good idea.
(The “Hey Baby > Into the Storm” from this show is in the big 4-disc Jimi Hendrix Experience box set, so it was ineligible for this list, but it’s probably the best non-bootleg version of that song, confident, uptempo, and with Billy Cox absolutely slaying. The drums had to be re-recorded because the wind was so bad they were inaudible.)
Hendrix played his last show on US soil the next day in Honolulu, and then had a month off before heading to Europe for the Isle of Wight Festival and a grueling week of shows following. Presumably he needed more time off than that, to finish his album and get his mind right, but the shows were booked.
“Hey Baby (New Rising Sun)” – Gothenburg, September 1
The improv starts at 32:19 here, flowing out of the final chord of “Message to Love.” Played at an amusement park in Sweden, for what was Hendrix’s third show in three cities in two countries in 40 or so hours, this is probably my favorite song from the whole tour.
There’s a weariness here. The guitar sounds tired, mournfully so, and so does Hendrix when he sings. I’m not sure who recorded this, or how, but there’s so much noise and hiss here that it’s work to listen to it, and the work you put in makes you feel like you’re straining to hear something Jimi is struggling to play.
The improvisation before the intro is classic Hendrix rhythm playing, flourishes at the tops of the chords, but with a quiet elegance that doesn’t fit with the wild-man image of live Jimi Hendrix, the primal noise machine. There’s none of that here. Only a Jimi Hendrix who wants to go home, on his third show in 48 hours, pouring that frustration into a little quiet burst of contemplation through his instrument.
The solo before the verse here is fluid, languorous. Notes hang like long breaths, tinged with feedback as they stretch out, and then burst into little flurries across the fretboard and back down into another sustaining moan. The amps are doing a lot of work here, the Marshalls stretching out notes that would rather collapse into silence. Hendrix switched to JBL’s in his cabinets in 1970 and they give everything on this tour a crystalline edge that hadn’t been there before in his Strats, and you can hear some of that clarity here, like it’s coming up from the bottom of a deep well, which, in a way, it is.
This is a quiet, beautiful song, a mournful plea to be somewhere else from a brilliant musician running out at the ragged edge. It was the last bit of feeling he could wring from himself in the moment, and it sounds like that.
Sidebar: Aarhus, September 2
Hendrix had another show the next night, his fourth since the Isle of Wight show in the wee hours of August 31. He was exhausted, and sick (the next two nights in Copenhagen and West Berlin it sounds like he could barely sing), and strung out on God knows what.
Things started bad and got worse. Whether it was illness, drugs, booze, exhaustion, or all four, he sounds like hell. It’s a little frightening how stoned he sounds, introducing the show with a catatonic “Welcome to the Electric Circus. The first song will be called ‘Freedom.'” He tries to play it, but it’s not happening. It sounds like he’s not sure how to hold the guitar. The chords are all wrong, when he can manage to play a chord at all. Billy Cox was dosed with some bad acid the night before, and was barely holding it together himself.
Jimi slogged his way through two and a half songs and couldn’t make it anymore. Supposedly he sat down on the stage for a bit before making his way back to the dressing room.
There’s an apocryphal story that as he walked off the stage, Hendrix said, “I’ve been dead a long time.” Listening to the tape, it seems unlikely that he was even able to speak. This show isn’t any good, and listening to it is harrowing, but this is what is sounds like when a guy falls apart. This should have been a bright red flag for everyone around Jimi that things were taking a turn, but the show had to go on.
At this point there were still three shows in three days left on the tour.
“Red House” – Isle of Fehmarn, September 6
I included this on the list because it’s from Hendrix’s last official show, less than two weeks before his death. I couldn’t find it on YouTube, probably because it was put out as a Dagger Records “official” bootleg a while back, but that also means that if you know where to look, it’s more available than the rest of this stuff.
The September 3 show in Copenhagen and the September 4 show in West Berlin were both good, especially in their quiet and/or down-tempo moments, but I didn’t want to put more than one “Hey Baby” on the list and those were, to me, the highlights of both shows, and they’re worth seeking out. I actually like those two better than this show. But:
At the last three shows of the tour, Hendrix could barely sing, but he makes up for it with contemplative, laid-back improvisation and a few interesting twists on the standards. One thing Hendrix bootlegs will teach you is that “Voodoo Child (Slight Return)” never really got better after the original studio version, but there it is at every show anyway. But one thing that was consistent through ’70, even as old as it was by this point, was “Red House,” which Jimi usually played on a left-handed Gibson Flying V instead of a flipped-over Strat.
Hendrix’s main idiom, even though he approached it like a spaceman who understood it backwards, was the blues. He never left it, not really. Tired, sick, ready to go home, playing a day later than expected because yet another dumb hippie festival was a logistical nightmare, this is a really clean “Red House”. If not for the skittering guitar runs that could have only been played by one person, this could be a BB King slow jam, and I mean that as the highest form of praise. Hendrix could always do this, no matter what the conditions.
At a disastrous show at the end of a disastrous European run at the end of a harried, overworked year, there was the blues. He doesn’t sound like a guy who will be dead in 12 days, but he does sound blue enough to believe that about himself.