Review: Jimi Hendrix, “Jimi Plays Berkeley” and “Live at Berkeley”
When Jimi Hendrix asked from the stage of the Berkeley Community Theatre on May 30, 1970 that his audience of approximately 3,500 patrons “forget about yesterday or tomorrow…this is our own little world tonight,” he wasn’t making such a request idly. Just outside the walls of the intimate theatre, fans were trying to crash the gates, scale the walls and even gain entry via the roof. For many, the pure, unfiltered and raw music created by Hendrix and his Experience was much-needed escapism, as the shadow of the Vietnam War loomed large. Berkeley had become a focal point of protest activity, and in fact, Hendrix was dispatched to perform there by his manager Michael Jeffery precisely because of the electric atmosphere. (The Jimi Hendrix Experience followed James Taylor and Pentangle, who had shared a bill at the theatre the evening before!) Hendrix’s two performances that Saturday night in Berkeley were captured for posterity by Jeffery’s film crew led by Peter Pilafian and Hendrix’s road sound engineer, Abe Jacob. Now, both the audio and video documents of that night are available once again courtesy of Experience Hendrix and Legacy Recordings. Both the film Jimi Plays Berkeley and the compact disc Live at Berkeley had previously been released by Experience Hendrix under its agreement with Universal Music Group. While the new Live at Berkeley (preserving Hendrix’s second set in full) replicates the previous CD edition, the documentary has been remastered and expanded for its Legacy debut.
Jimi Plays Berkeley, originally released in 1971, draws on footage from both the early and late sets. For its Blu-ray debut (88691 992689 7) and upgraded DVD (88691 992559 3), it has been remastered from the original 16mm film negative. Even more notably, 15-plus minutes of previously unseen footage have been seamlessly edited into the film which now runs roughly 65 minutes in length. This new material includes performance footage of “Hear My Train A-Comin’,” “Purple Haze,” “Voodoo Child (Slight Return)” and “Machine Gun.” “Hear My Train A-Comin’,” in particular, has been greatly improved, now clocking in at over nine minutes. It’s still three minutes short of the actual performance length, however. Though the documentary contains performances from both sets, the film crew reportedly didn’t even have enough film to capture each and every song. As a result, most are truncated. The inclusion of the additional footage, then, is not only historically important but also makes the film more substantial. Still, it can’t wholly redeem it.
We’ll meet you back after the jump, okay?
Pilafian’s film crew not only captured Hendrix onstage, but the general sense of dread and unrest around Berkeley. The onstage sequences are interspersed with footage of protesters and fans, but the finished motion picture lacks a clear and discernible point of view, a central tenet of a great documentary or even a dynamic concert film. At times, Jimi Plays Berkeley shows us Hendrix, fly-on-the-wall style – smoking, drinking, flirting, setting up for the gig – but the glimpses are fleeting. More time is spent on the young denizens of Berkeley. Some of these moments aren’t without levity, such as when students are seen boycotting Warner Bros. for charging three dollars and fifty cents for admission to the Woodstock film. (To put that in perspective, tickets to Hendrix’s concert ran from $3.50 to $5.50!) One young woman swoons over Hendrix as “every groupie’s dream.” Another student opines that Jimi is “my very favorite hero,” while a master of understatement comments that he’s a “pretty far out guitar player.” More often, though, the street scenes are sobering, if not so artfully assembled as to have much impact. The grainy footage of “Hear My Train A-Comin’” is cross-cut with the marches and demonstrations throughout Berkeley (anti-war, not anti-Warner), while Hendrix’s blazing “Star-Spangled Banner” with its wails of pained feedback is allowed to speak, and comment, for itself. The scenes set to the devastating, politically-charged “Machine Gun,” with protesters confronted by police, can’t help but have a visceral urgency lacking elsewhere in the film. Oddly, there are very few shots of the audience at the concerts, and just as little of the other two-thirds of the Experience. Mitch Mitchell (drums) and Billy Cox (bass), the Band of Gypsys bassist who filled the shoes of Noel Redding from the Experience’s first line-up, seem like invisible sidemen in the film.
Somewhat predictably, Jimi Plays Berkeley is at its most compelling when it simply lives up to its title. Hendrix swaggers, postures, and wins over the crowd with sheer charisma and mind-boggling instrumental invention. Thankfully, there are plenty of these vivid moments, although only “Johnny B. Goode” and “Star Spangled Banner/Purple Haze” are shown en toto. Hendrix practically turns the Chuck Berry rock-and-roll classic into a religious experience when he begins to play with his teeth, a triumphant act of showmanship. (At other points, he falls to his knees, plays his guitar under his leg, and generally continues to amaze and delight the audience with his virtuosity.) Even with the songs cut down from their full, improvised lengths, we see the tremendous intensity of Hendrix, the performer. Yet Jimi Plays Berkeley offers us preciously little of Hendrix, the man.
The DVD and Blu-ray offer a 5.1 mix of the documentary prepared by Eddie Kramer, with the audience heard prominently in the rear channels. Both formats offer two bonus features. The first is a short interview with Abe Jacob (misidentified on the menu as “Abe Jacobs”). Jacob has had one of the most renowned careers in sound engineering for both rock-and-roll and the Broadway stage, having pioneered modern theatrical sound design in productions including the original Jesus Christ Superstar, Pippin and A Chorus Line. His association with Hendrix began at 1967’s Monterey Pop Festival, and he amiably recounts just how much things have changed for a touring performer: “We didn’t even have catering!” Jacob’s knowledge of the art of sound engineering, as well as his genuine affection for his one-time employer Hendrix, comes through. The second bonus feature is a 5.1 audio-only presentation of the complete second set.
That second set is also available in CD format as Live at Berkeley (88691 99257 2). Although there’s nothing new for collectors who already owned this title in its previous edition, it’s good to have it back in print. The complete set captures not only Hendrix’s scorching takes on “Foxey Lady,” “Purple Haze,” “Hey Joe” and “Voodoo Child (Slight Return),” but his onstage banter, sometimes humorous and sometimes even humble, as when he thanks the audience for “the last three years.” Tapes of the first set have long circulated in collector’s circles; a complete audio release of both sets would have made an important and essential new entry in the Hendrix catalogue. One hopes that such a release is in the works. For the CD, as with the past edition, John McDermott contributes an essay (he does the same for the new DVD/BD). George Marino’s remastered sound has been utilized, and the concert still sounds expectedly crisp and appropriately eardrum- and earth-shattering when The Experience lets loose.
One interviewee in Jimi Plays Berkeley presciently observes that “black folks and white folks” alike should see Hendrix while they have the chance, just in case he “doesn’t last!” Yet he couldn’t have known that Hendrix would be dead less than four months later at the age of 27, nor that the, songwriter, producer and trailblazing musician would leave behind a body of work that would still resonate for fans of all walks of life, 42 years later. The music played during those two sets in Berkeley was otherworldly (just listen to those first notes of “Star-Spangled Banner,” for one!), haunting and just plain exciting. Come to think of it, there couldn’t have been any doubt in the air at the Berkeley Community Theatre on May 30 that Jimi Hendrix would, indeed, last.
Jimi Plays Berkeley is available on DVD and Blu-ray; Live at Berkeley is available on compact disc; and Bob Smeaton’s documentary Voodoo Child (originally part of the box set West Coast Seattle Boy in DVD format) also makes its Blu-ray debut as part of this wave of releases from Legacy and Experience Hendrix.