Jimi Hendrix made a lot of his best music in the final 12 months of his life. His 1968 double LP Electric Ladyland was a swirling masterpiece, its relative sprawl (for the time; at 75 minutes, it fits on a single CD) allowing him to showcase different styles of songwriting, often blending tracks into suites that gave it all both unity and momentum and kept it from feeling like a patchwork. But in the not quite two years between its release in October 1968 and his death in September 1970, his songwriting shifted in a harder, funkier direction, stripping away psychedelic studio experimentation in favor of hard ‘n’ heavy drumming, crunching riffs and soaring solos. In the last few years, the Hendrix industry has turned its focus to this latter-day material, releasing items like the five-CD 2019 box Songs For Groovy Children: The Fillmore East Concerts.
The set contains all of the releasable material from the New Year’s Eve/New Year’s Day 1969/70 concerts Hendrix performed with the Band of Gypsys, his trio featuring bassist Billy Cox and drummer Buddy Miles. A bottom-heavy unit that could ride a groove to the end of the earth, take off on wild jams, or unleash one of Hendrix’s deepest, most pained blues songs in “Machine Gun,” they’re astonishing when absorbed at length and in depth. The group seems to come together over the course of the first night; the first set is ragged, the songs still feeling somewhat under-rehearsed. But by the third set, they’ve become a musical flamethrower, Cox and Miles laying down taut, throbbing grooves over which Hendrix soars like a hawk surveying a battlefield.
The Band of Gypsys didn’t last long after that set of shows, though, perhaps because Hendrix didn’t like surrendering the spotlight to Miles, who was often a co-leader, even singing a song or two during each night’s set. He brought back his Experience drummer, Mitch Mitchell, though he kept Billy Cox in the bass slot, and went out on tour while preparing songs for his proposed fourth studio album, to be called either The Cry of Love or First Rays of the New Rising Sun. (Compilations of what he managed to record before his death have been issued under both names, with varying track listings.)
On July 30, 1970, Hendrix, Mitchell and Cox performed two 50-minute sets of music on a ramshackle outdoor stage on the Hawaiian island of Maui. These recordings were intended for a movie called Rainbow Bridge, which Hendrix’s manager Michael Jeffry was producing. (I’ve never seen it, but literally every review suggests it’s a barely watchable piece of rambling hippie garbage.) Unfortunately, high winds and less than professional engineering generated substandard recordings, and only bits and pieces were even featured in the movie — about 17 minutes of music, and no complete songs.
Both concerts have now been released more or less in full (a few songs have apparently been omitted or edited, and the order of performance has been switched around) on the two-CD set Live in Maui (get it from Amazon). On several songs, the drums are noticeably louder and fuller; Mitch Mitchell overdubbed them in the studio in 1971, when the movie was being prepared for release. On the other tracks, which engineer Eddie Kramer has done an admirable job salvaging, the kit sounds smaller and looser, rattling along behind Hendrix, with Cox providing a thick and occasionally intriguing counterpoint.
The actual performances are very good, with a high level of energy and an impressive tautness. Hendrix and band were on tour from April till September 1970, playing shows in two- and three-day bursts, and in between, they were in the studio, writing and recording new songs that were also being premiered on stage. So by this show, which comes at the end of a summer of near-constant studio and live work, they’re deeply tuned into each other and capable of explosive improvisation. When Hendrix decides to make a left turn, as he does on “Fire,” suddenly throwing in the riff to Cream‘s “Sunshine of Your Love” (something he’d also done with the Band of Gypsys during a version of their song “Stone Free”), Cox and Mitchell are right behind him. There are relatively few long jams, only a version of “Hear My Train A-Comin'” that approaches the ten-minute mark and an eight-minute “Jam Back at the House,” a jazzy but somewhat formless piece also performed at the Woodstock festival in August 1969, albeit with a larger ensemble, including percussion and a rhythm guitarist, which gave it a structure that a trio can’t match. The overwhelming majority of the songs, though, are three to five minutes long, fueled by a kind of punk-R&B energy and performed with a showman’s sense of dynamics and flow. The raw, somewhat primitive sound isn’t a hindrance; it’s a bonus, giving the music the jagged, clattering edge of 1990s Japanese psych-rock like High Rise or Mainliner, with the vocals half-buried in the music and delivered in a half-unhinged cry.
This shouldn’t be anyone’s first Jimi Hendrix album. But as a warts-and-all document of a surprisingly good (considering the circumstances) late live set, it’s definitely recommended to existing fans.