SummerStage Honors the Music of Jimi Hendrix
Central Park SummerStage
Tuesday, June 5
Better than: Exercising, which is apparently what you’re supposed to be doing in Central Park.
Hendrix was really into covers—his live sets were littered with songs by Cream (“Sunshine of Your Love”), Dylan (“Like a Rolling Stone”), the Beatles (“Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band”), and Howlin’ Wolf (“Killing Floor”)—so it always feels in the spirit of the Experienced One to kick out his jams. On the other hand, it’s a bit redundant to do Jimi; the man’s influence as a guitarist, singer, songwriter, and fashion icon is still so widespread that everyone’s already sort of performing Jimi all the time anyway. In any event, any event devoted to the music of James Marshall Hendrix is sure to at least be fun, and SummerStage Honors the Music of Jimi Hendrix, a Michael Dorf-produced fundraising gala to keep SummerStage’s other shows free, was no exception.
A Black Thought-less version of the Roots, for instance, reimagined the speedy, proto-breakbeat scorcher “Fire” as a midtempo blues shuffle, converting that song’s “burning desire” to a lusty sizzle. Its form unrecognizable until guitarist Captain Kirk Douglas started singing, the tune climaxed with newish bassist Mark Kelley menacingly prowling the stage, sousaphonist Tuba Gooding Jr. jumping up on the drum riser, and drum major Questlove improvising forcefully over a thick, lazy riff. The threat of chaos can be thrilling, especially if it’s coming from a group as potentially polished as the Roots; who says a funk band can’t play rock?
On the other end of the spectrum, jazz guitar shaman John Scofield paid his respects to Jimi by making unabashedly joyful music. Over an upbeat, head-bob-inducing groove that subtly nodded to hip-hip, Sco’s soloing—fast, bright, soulful, ecstatic—turned the dark, mournful “Hey Joe” into a sweaty, celebratory anthem. The Miles Davis alum’s next trick was the unavoidable “Purple Haze” and, due in large part to the grounded backing of Soulive, it sounded fresh. A pair of spontaneous-seeming conversations enclosed within “Haze”—the first between drummer Alan Evans and Scofield, the second between Scofield and guitarist Eric Krasno—helped inspire the standing ovation that song received.
The third big success story of the night was Living Colour, which delivered a trio of deliriously energetic performances. During the driving “Power to Love,” off Jimi’s 1970 LP Band of Gypsys, powerhouse singer Corey Glover howled through the verses, the instrumentalists behind him steering the song nearly to metal. “Crosstown Traffic”—a real New York song, you know?—was fueled by bassist Doug Wimbish’s thunderous slapping and guitar hero Vernon Reid’s unbridled shredding, the latter of which was often unfortunately buried in the mix.
Technical difficulties aside, there were some missteps. Bebel Gilberto—who offered “Little Wing” and “The Wind Cries Mary”—and Keller Williams—who tossed off “Castles Made of Sand” and “Up from the Skies”—handled their turns with too much care, delivering mild, pleasant interpretations. To all future performers of Hendrix’s music: Let’s remember that Hendrix was the guy who lit his guitar on fire and then smashed it. Sure, in “Spanish Castle Magic” he mentions riding a dragonfly, but he was also a voodoo child who sang about machine guns. He liked feedback and noise. “Purple Haze,” his second single with the Experience, starts with a tritone, a k a “the devil’s interval.” There is an undercurrent of violence in his music; the man was dangerous. To paraphrase his idol Bob Dylan, he would’ve wanted his music played fucking loud.
Critical bias: The dark Band of Gypsys has long been a desert-island disc of mine.
Overheard: Jazz writer Howard Mandel talking about actually seeing Hendrix.
Random notebook dump: David Byrne did a nice “One Rainy Wish” at SummerStage back in ’05.
The Star-Spangled Banner (Wyclef Jean)
Have You Ever Been (To Electric Ladyland)/Fire (The Roots)
Little Wing (Bebel Gilberto)
The Wind Cries Mary (Bebel Gilberto)
How Would You Feel (G. Love w/Soulive)
Ain’t No Telling (G. Love w/Soulive)
Manic Depression (Soulive)
Stone Free (Soulive)
Castles Made of Sand (Keller Williams)
Up from the Skies (Keller Williams w/Soulive)
May This Be Love (Amel Larrieux w/Soulive)
Angel (Amel Larrieux w/Soulive)
Hey Joe (John Scofield w/Soulive and Nigel Hall)
Purple Haze/Changes (John Scofield w/Soulive and Nigel Hall)
Spanish Castle Magic (Karl Denson w/Soulive)
Third Stone from the Sun (Karl Denson w/Soulive)
Power to Love (Living Colour)
Crosstown Traffic (Living Colour)
All Along the Watchtower (Living Colour w/G. Love, Keller Williams, Bebel Gilberto, Amel Larrieux, Karl Denson, John Scofield, Captain Kirk Douglas, Eric Krasno, Neal Evans, and others)