in performance: experience hendrix

the music of jimi hendrix was celebrated last night in louisville with the all-star 'experience hendrix.'

the music of jimi hendrix was celebrated last night in louisville with the all-star 'experience hendrix.'

All star tribute concerts can be treacherous undertakings. One on hand, you have a lineup of major acts gathered on the same stage plugging something other than their own work. But star power tends to overshadow most opportunities for chance or discovery at such summits.

Take last night’s Experience Hendrix performance at the Kentucky Center for the Arts in Louisville. A weighty, three hour affair performed without intermission or encore, this touring celebration of guitar icon Jimi Hendrix brought together members of Aerosmith, Los Lobos and Stevie Ray Vaughan’s Double Trouble along with guitarslingers that were inspirations (Buddy Guy, Hubert Sumlin), disciples (Eric Johnson), new generation stylists (Kenny Wayne Shepherd, Jonny Lang, Eric Gales and Mato Nanji) and actual bandmates (Mitch Mitchell, Billy Cox) of Hendrix and his mighty music.

It all looked great on paper. But given the wealth of talent – and the often obvious disparity of styles within its ranks – Experience Hendrix couldn’t help but he a lopsided affair.

The program was as it best when the performers didn’t try to sound like Hendrix. After all, no one can replicate his intensity and innovations for electric guitar, so why not opt for respectful interpretation instead? That’s where Austin, Texas guitarist Johnson took honors. His tone was lighter, cleaner and more jazz like than Hendrix’s. Yet his versions of Bold of Love and Are You Experienced? were remarkably faithful to the originals, right down the latter’s chunky, scraping riffs. Similarly, Johnson sandwiched Love or Confusion between layers of distortion that found finesse within amplifier feedback.

Los Lobos’ guitarist/singers David Hidalgo and Cesar Rosas threw a pair of mighty curve balls into the mix by being the only act on the bill to seriously slow the evening’s parade of guitar jams for a quiet, lovely reading of Little Wing. Rosas sang lead. Both guitarists added subtle, soulful solos. Later, the duo offered a slice of funk that veered away specifically from Hendrix music for a spry cover of Them Changes, the lone career hit for Hendrix’s Band of Gypsies drummer Buddy Miles.

While his stage time was brief, 76 year old Mississippi bluesman Sumlin, a one-time guitarist for Howlin’ Wolf, stripped Hendrix’s reading of Killing Floor of its rockier veneer and returned the tune to its juke joint roots.

Admittedly, all of that constituted a fine show in itself. But things got shakier the deeper into the roster you went. Guy got points for his ageless edge and playful mix of blues mischief and gospel fervency. He chose to use his own band and spend much of his set showcasing his own songs, which was a shame. Still, Out in the Woods (one of two tunes performed from his new Skin Deep album) was a beaut – a slow and very stormy blues meditation where Guy swiftly traded jagged licks with Sumlin.

The younger hot shots offered the most predictable playing. While it was cool to see Shepherd devoting much of his set to Hendrix’s 1968 masterwork Electric Ladyland, he didn’t dig much deeper that the album’s two versions of Voodoo Chile. Both were top heavy with solos that, energetic though they were, quickly stagnated. Lang fared better, mostly because he was able to create tight rhythmic exchanges with Aerosmith guitarist Brad Whitford and Double Trouble drummer Chris Layton on Fire and The Wind Cries Mary.

The two Hendrix accomplices – British drummer Mitch Mitchell (from the Jimi Experience) and bassist Billy Cox (who played with Mitchell and Hendrix during the guitarist’s final years) – certainly added credibility to the occasion. Cox still seemed full of joy and fire as he took the vocal reigns for Stone Free and Red House. Mitchell seemed cheery and disconnected in a Keith Richards sort-of-way. He would play one of the stage’s three drum kits whenever the mood seemed to hit, even if it was in the middle of a song, or work his way to the microphone for some good natured but fractured remark. Fortunately for everyone, Layton manned the main drum seat for most of the evening. The celebrities came and went. But Layton marched on with rugged heart, drive and swing.

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