A review of a new four-CD box set, "West Coast Seattle Boy," an uneven collection of rare Jimi Hendrix tracks, packaged with a DVD documentary. By Jimi Hendrix biographer Charles R. Cross.
Saturday, Nov. 27, marked the 68th anniversary of Jimi Hendrix’s birth in Seattle’s Harborview Hospital. He may be the single most famous Harborview baby, and he certainly has cast the longest shadow of any Seattle-born musician. Though Hendrix died at 27, he lived a remarkable life, and his records are revered as part of rock’s holy grail.
“West Coast Seattle Boy” is a new four-CD boxed set that adds to that oeuvre with 59 tracks, many previously unissued. It is the single widest-ranging official Hendrix set, due to the fact that it includes the guitarist’s early session work with the Isley Brothers, King Curtis and Little Richard. The set includes a separate DVD documentary, and with the music provides a portrait of two sides of Jimi’s career — that as a session player, and later as bandleader.
It’s a bit of an odd lot as a result, with a jarring transition between the R&B sideman material and the Jimi Hendrix Experience outtakes. But those two sides do reflect the peculiar nature of Jimi’s career, where he spent five years trying to be famous, and then overnight became a legend.
Hendrix left Seattle at 18, and eventually ended up as a guitarist for hire with touring R&B bands. Disc One features his contributions on rhythm and lead guitar, and though he is but a small part of these records, all sung by others, you can hear him wanting to cut loose. All this R&B material has been released before, but on songs like Don Covay’s “Mercy, Mercy,” a listener will enjoy picturing Hendrix stepping forward to add a tasteful guitar solo.
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When Disc Two starts with a searing alternative take of “Fire” from 1967, it is such a dramatic switch that it is almost hard to believe this is the same musician. In a way, the 1967 Swinging London Hendrix was a remade man, liberated from the confines of R&B. In London, Hendrix formed a trio as if to show that he could do almost everything himself, and on this set’s outtake of “Are You Experienced?,” he practically does.
Yet the highlight of Disc Two, and of the whole box, are six raw demos recorded in a hotel room in 1968. They include his ode to his mother, “Angel,” a song for the ages. His playing on “Hear My Train A Comin’ ” is also revelatory, not because of the technical skill involved, but due to the emotionality.
Disc Two also includes Hendrix’s cover of Bob Dylan’s “Tears of Rage,” which is another forgotten side to Jimi, a Dylan freak from the start. Dylan leaked songs to Hendrix hoping the guitarist would cover them and earn Dylan publishing royalties. Jimi’s “Tears of Rage” might not have earned Dylan a fortune, but it is a fun romp.
Disc Three is less cohesive, and has a few miscues as a result. The Hendrix estate has had three different owners over the years, but the ’70s estate directors made the most misguided decision to add new music to some of Hendrix’s unfinished songs. A couple of these tracks are from those muddled studio experiments, and they pale in contrast to what Jimi himself cut. Also “Mastermind,” written and sung by Hendrix cohort Larry Lee during the Woodstock summer, is rambling and unfocused. Only the final two tracks of this disc, searing live cuts from the Band of Gypsies’ Fillmore East shows, are notable.
The problems with Disc Three highlight the struggles faced by the Hendrix estate (now managed by Jimi’s stepsister Janie Hendrix) as it seeks to continue to monetize their audio assets. Hard-core fans clamor for “rare” and unknown studio tracks that haven’t already been bootlegged, but as the estate has already issued dozens of posthumous collections, finding truly unique songs becomes more difficult. Many of Jimi’s outtakes remained on the studio cutting-room floor for a reason: the guitarist found them inferior. One here is titled “Untitled Basic Track,” and has nice riffing, but doesn’t rank in the top 100 Jimi performances. Including this jam on a disc with something as brilliant as the Band of Gypsies’ “Fire” is one of the reasons “West Coast Seattle Boy” has a thrown-together feel.
Disc Four has similar issues, particularly with the filler of “Peter Gunn/Catastrophe.” Though this was one of the first songs Jimi learned to play as a Seattle teenager, it is hard to imagine that if he were alive, this would ever have seen the light of day. Hendrix was a perfectionist, which may be why the three studio albums he released were so pure.
There are some stellar performances on “West Coast Seattle Boy,” and any listener will come away knowing much more about the diverse nature of Hendrix’s career. Yet the 2000 box release, titled “The Jimi Hendrix Experience,” is a better place for casual fans to start. Still, for the Hendrix fan with almost everything, this set makes a great Christmas gift, and the DVD is insightful.
But perhaps the oddest things about “West Coast Seattle Boy” is that despite the title there is nothing from Seattle on this set, and only a handful of tracks even recorded on the West Coast. Jimi never had a studio session in Seattle, but some of those who grew up with him say tapes do exist of the teenaged Jimi playing in a garage, but have been lost for decades. If these tapes are ever unearthed, they might truly deserve the title “Seattle Boy.” Those recordings, the true holy Hendrix grail, would be the first noise from a Seattle baby who came into Harborview screaming, and can still be heard decades later.
Charles R. Cross is the author of seven books, including the 2005 best-selling biography of Jimi Hendrix, “Room Full of Mirrors.” Reach him at email@example.com.