March 31, 2019
Band of Gypsys – one of two band names Jimi Hendrix fronted in his short career. Along with his first solo band – the Jimi Hendrix Experience, he seared his way into people’s hearts and minds and souls. His supercharged, psychedelic version of the Blues changed Rock music forever and his innovative use of feedback, effects and studio wizardry set the standard around the world for other artists to follow. Countless guitarists followed in his footsteps and some well known players such as Frank Marino, Robin Trower and Stevie Ray Vaughn carried the torch that Hendrix lit on their own recordings. This level of influence would not be felt again until nearly ten years after his death, when Edward Van Halen began blazing his own trail of guitar wizardry and technical innovation. Nearly fifty years after his death, Hendrix’ influence in the world of music is still being felt. He not only inspired the guitarists of his generation but subsequent generations as well. How fitting; that a group of well known guitarists – a modern day band of gypsies if you will, are touring the U.S., spreading the word of the gospel according to the guitar god in his words and music.
In honor of Jimi Hendrix, his sister Janie, CEO of Experience Hendrix LLC has been coordinating a traveling tribute to him. This consists of a group of well known guitarists who were influenced by Hendrix, playing Jimi’s music for fans to enjoy. This current tour consists of such players as Joe Satriani, Eric Johnson, Dave Mustaine, Zakk Wylde (did not appear at this show), Jonny Lang and Dweezil Zappa. Chris Layton, from Stevie Ray Vaughan’s group Double Trouble plays drums for each portion of the show. Guitarist Mato Nanji and bassist Kevin McCormick, along with Layton provide the backing band for the rest of the artists that appear. The name Experience Hendrix has a double meaning. Aside from being the name of the company that holds the rights to Jimi’s music, etc., the traveling tour is meant to keep Jimi’s music alive and for fans to experience hearing Jimi’s music, perhaps for the first time and inspiring them to follow in his footsteps. Personally, I had never attended one of these tribute tours. I also had not seen Dweezil Zappa or Johnny Lang before and looked forward to the experience of seeing them play. As a big Joe Satriani fan, I was anxious to see him perform his versions of Hendrix’ songs.
It was a chilly Wednesday night as I traveled to Parx Entertainment Center in Bensalem, P.A. to attend the show. The casino is part of the complex that is host to horse racing as well as live entertainment. I made my way into the concert venue which seats 1500 people. I grabbed a draught, sat down and waited for the show to begin. At 7:30 PM, Janie Hendrix came on, thanked everyone for attending and introduced the first group of musicians. Billy Cox, the last remaining member of Hendrix’ Band of Gypsys, came on and launched into “Freedom” accompanied by Dweezil Zappa on guitar. Cox still has a good voice and sang the lyrics as well or better than Jimi did. It was a rousing rendition and got the crowd rocking. Next, Cox along with lap steel guitarists Calvin Cook and Chuck Campbell (The Slide Brothers) and singer Henri Brown performed a stellar version of “Foxy Lady.” Now, most people don’t think of hearing lap steel guitar in a Rock song but Cook and Campbell were amazing. It was fitting that the last surviving member of Hendrix’ band was the first to perform in this tribute.
Guitarist Eric Johnson was next to come to the stage. He along with Brown, Layton and McCormick performed The Band of Gypsys’ “Power of Soul.” Johnson plays in a style all his own, with fast legato runs that seem to cascade in a waterfall of notes. It is not quite in the blues style but he makes it work. His style and tone stands apart from Hendrix even though he uses the same types of equipment that Jimi used; Marshall amps and Fender Stratocasters but in ways that sound unique to him – no easy feat. Following that up, they next performed “Love or Confusion” joined by Dweezil Zappa. Dweezil is pretty well known in guitar circles and is a solid guitarist. Influenced early on by Eddie Van Halen, he actually owns the guitar that Jimi set on fire at the famous Monterey Pop Festival gig in 1967. He has frequently gone on tour playing his father, Frank Zappa’s music in the tribute: “Zappa on Zappa,” along with his own compositions. He and Johnson took turns playing solos which really got the crowd pumped up. A cool version of “Bold as Love” was next as Johnson and Zappa again wowed the audience with their inspired playing. The instrumental crescendo at the end was particularly uplifting. Jimi’s music wasn’t just about the blues. He created new possibilities and pushed the envelope and this song was a great example of this. Johnson, sans Zappa but with the rest of the group followed up “Axis” with the classic “Are You Experienced?”
The group delved into the Blues next with Chuck Campbell singing as he, Cooke, Nanji, McCormack and Layton performed the classic “The Sky is Crying.” Jimi was as much a product of the blues as he was a creative artist and was not opposed to playing cover songs in addition to his original material. He started out as a member of Little Richard’s and The Isley Brothers bands so performing blues tunes was not unusual for him. Special Guest Taj Majal made his appearance next. Sitting on a stool, he, along with The Slide Brothers and the backing band played three Blues classics that Hendrix covered – “Killing Floor”, “Catfish Blues” and most famously, “Hey Joe.” This was a real treat as I had never seen Majal before. Playing a semi-hollow Gibson electric, it was a nice to hear a more acoustic-sounding version of these tunes. It changed the atmosphere a bit, making it more mellow and giving the audience a chance to catch their breath.
Jonny Lang followed up Mahal’s set, accompanied by Eric Johnson and the backing bandas they performed Hendrix’ version the Dylan song “All Along the Watchtower.” Being a perennial fan favorite, this song got thunderous applause from the audience as the song came to a conclusion. Lang is a bit of an enigma: he gained some notoriety in the early nineties after the passing of Stevie Ray Vaughan and seemed to fade from view afterwards. He has recently re-emerged and it was good to see him back on stage, paying tribute to one of his influences. The group performed another well known Hendrix cover: “The Wind Cries Mary”, as Johnson played the solo – his rendition closely following Hendrix’ perfect interpretation. Johnson exited as Lang followed up with his version of “Spanish Castle Magic” – much to the audience’s delight.
To begin the next set, Henri Brown introduced Megadeth guitarist Dave Mustaine to the crowd and he was enthusiastically greeted. Mustaine – a Speed Metal guitarist announced “we’re going to speed things up a little bit” and that’s exactly what they did! They tore with into “Fire” while Lang accompanied him on rhythm guitar and Brown sang the lyrics. I’m sure a lot of eyebrows were raised when Mustaine was announced as one the guitarists in this tribute but he fit right in. Even Metal guitarists have had one foot in the blues at some point, even if it was harder and faster than what most blues purists are used to. He played Jimi’s solos virtually note-for-note, which showed that he was influenced as much by Hendrix as by any other guitarist and that he was capable of playing in more than one style. Lang exited and Mustaine led the band as they played the classic “Purple Haze” and finished with the up-tempo “Stone Free.” Billy Cox re-emerged on the stage as he and Chuck Campbell joined the backing band for “Red House” followed by the Buddy Miles (Band of Gypsys) cover – “Them Changes.”
The highlight of the show without a doubt was the playing of Joe Satriani, as he appeared on stage and practically tore the place apart. Along with Bassist/vocalist Dug Pinnick and drummer Kenny Aronoff, he launched into “Crosstown Traffic” – letting the dive-bombs and harmonic squeals fly in a Hendrix-inspired Octavia tone as the backdrop showed a time-lapsed, busy city intersection. He followed that by ripping into “Manic Depression” – playing a perfect Hendrix-styled rendition note for note. He played a stunning version of “I Don’t Live Today” next with a feedback-laced interlude during the middle of the song, mimicking all the great sound effects that Hendrix made just with his guitar and added his own personal touch. He concluded the song by playing an up tempo barrage of notes in a screaming bombast to the audience’s shock and surprise. He followed that with “Third Stone from the Sun” and “Machine Gun” before closing with an amazing version of “Voodoo Chile (Slight Return.)” Clearly, Satriani was in his element and it was obvious that he absolutely loved Hendrix’ music. He, more than anyone on stage seemed to channel Jimi’s playing and brought it into reality.
It was a glorious end to a celebration of Jimi Hendrix’ music and one I won’t soon forget. I can’t help but think that Jimi was looking down from Heaven with a smile as the artists and the fans remembered him and experienced his music, just the way he would have intended. Thanks to Janie Hendrix for making it all possible.
What’s your favorite Hendrix song?