The original strands of my DNA as a music lover date back to Friday nights at a run-down bowling alley. I was just an eight-year-old kid, following his dad to a bowling league full of foul-mouthed, beer-stained, and cigarette-puffing men. The speakers in the alley constantly blared vinyl-rock, straight from the mouths of classic-F.M. frequencies. I was immediately hooked. As a young kid in discovery mode, these rock figureheads soon became larger than life entities of sound. They were shrouded in mystery, escaping the limitations of ordinary men, and rising to be God-like ambassadors of music. I’ve always been obsessed with artists that have the power of that kind of mystique; searching in vain for anyone to rival Jimi Hendrix in that category.
Hendrix was one of the pioneers of the “out of this world, beyond comprehension” form that some rock musicians were once able to morph into. Modern music can blame the social networking culture, breaking down the walls between artist and fan, but the fact is that many current artists don’t carry that mystifying presence (the haunting Nick Cave may be one of the last great examples). For that reason, the album, People, Hell & Angels, seems to not only be a gift to Hendrix fans looking for closure, but also a profound artifact in the mystical qualities of rock music itself. It’s an undeniable presence in the possibilities the album presents; possibilities of the work Hendrix had yet to embark on.
People, Hell & Angels, unearths Hendrix’s recordings following the man’s canon album, Electric Ladyland, in 1968. The collection pulls from recording sessions that followed in ’68 and ’69, featuring the Band of Gypsys lineup (Bill Cox and Buddy Miles). While the album has come under scrutiny for its plentiful incorporation of previously released work, the new versions of Hendrix’s final pieces seem to offer a more focused vision than many other collections. Each sub-genre of the artist appears fleshed out, and shows Hendrix as an apex musician; possessing the ability to take his sound anywhere he desired.
The singles off the album, “Earth Blues” and “Somewhere,” are both previously released tracks, but new incarnations. “Earth Blues” is the master recording of a single that showcases Hendrix’s control of the funk genre and its concepts. Featuring grooving riffs and harmonized choruses, Hendrix is seen all at once as part gospel, part heavy rock, and part funk pioneer.
His chops as a songwriter also suggest a complex vision of the philosophical themes he began to develop on previous work. Hendrix has an ability to see the earth as an outsider, looking on from beyond the physical world, while still attempting to keep his feet on the ground; “Don’t get too stoned, please remember you’re a man.” He cries for the lord to “please give us a helping hand” in both “Earth Blues” and “Somewhere,” realizing the severity of his times. The writing in these songs is, perhaps, the strongest tie to the title of the collection; pondering the connection of the three existences of people, hell, and angels. “Somewhere” pushes the boundaries of the blues and funk form introduced in “Earth Blues.” The track is more sprawling and advancing, as Hendrix pushes the rawer qualities of his playing.
From that introduction, the rest of the album dives more into Hendrix’s abilities as a jam musician and hard rock-infused blues conductor. “Hear My Train A Comin’” and “Bleeding Heart” are the yin and yang of Hendrix’s interpretations of the blues. Where “Hear My Train A Comin’” is frenetic, “Bleeding Heart” is carefully paced, erupting in a steady progression. The two tracks play well off one another, and give the listener a vast range of the man’s capabilities in blues. Even though, most listeners will already have a thorough understanding of that prominence.
Where this collection gains more significance, is in Hendrix’s ability to push into his deeper influences: jazz and soul. Listeners will be overwhelmed by the jazz qualities in the back-to-back “Easy Blues” and “Crash Landing.” “Easy Blues” seems a far cry from an image of Hendrix melting faces at sold-out festivals, burning guitars at Monterey. The tone of Hendrix’s playing associates itself more with the dimly lit jazz clubs of early Harlem, while still forcing that mood to adapt into his forever evolving style of rock music.
Soul even becomes a deeper avenue of discovery on “Let Me Love You.” Hendrix gives vocal duties to Lonnie Youngblood, offering his services to a track that is more Youngblood’s than Hendrix. Though not a direct Hendrix track, the palpable chemistry that Youngblood and Hendrix have fuels an engrossing display of soul. It shows a side of Hendrix not often given in his other posthumous material. The blaring sax that Youngblood plays with abandon enters a harmonious relationship with Hendrix’s guitar style; suggesting that perhaps Hendrix would have explored soul even further after such a successful partnership.
At its core, People, Hell & Angels, enhances that love of the mystique I can’t ever shake. Hendrix comes across as a musician still in the prime of his musical output, willing to let listeners see mere glimpses of the whole package of his artistry. Each intricacy in the album adds another slim piece to an unsatisfying puzzle; a dream of what Hendrix was working towards. The fact is that this hinted at genius existed, and managed to elude all of us; capturing our imagination, threatening our sanity, and enhancing the divine mystique that surrounds the greatest guitarist to ever live.