This feature originally ran in February 2016. We’re reposting it in celebration of Jimi Hendrix’s 76th birthday.
It’s one of the odder contradictions about Jimi Hendrix: Despite being so enigmatic and galvanizing in front of a live audience, he actually hated being out on the road. In his defense, “the road” in the 1960s was an unforgiving and punishing place to be, especially when plotted out in advance by Hendrix’s manager, Michael Jeffery.
One night he and his band, The Experience, would be playing a gym in Santa Barbara, California, and the next night they’d find themselves in an arena in Seattle, Washington. Patently brutal. Then there was the added anxiety of being far away from the recording studio — the place where he felt most at home. To Hendrix, touring was more stress than it was worth. It was just something he had to do to keep the black lights at Electric Lady Studios on. The rest of us of course know the truth.
Hendrix was only on the scene for about four years of his life, but he absolutely made the most of that time. Amid a number of classic, immortal recordings, he also toured incessantly and performed an incredible number of live shows that still have the ability to shock and surprise nearly 50 years on. From the Fillmore East to the Fillmore West, from Woodstock and Monterey to Paris, London, and everywhere else that he and whatever group was backing him went, the possibility that real magic might present itself always hung heavy in the air.
Below are the 10 concerts when the magician was at his most spellbinding. For more on Hendrix, subscribe The Opus, our new podcast dedicated to legendary albums and their ongoing legacy. Host Paula Mejia is currently busy dissecting Bob Dylan’s Blood on the Tracks, but come January, she’ll head straight into the distorted, wavy soundscapes of Electric Ladyland for more exciting episodes that’ll feature a diverse range of guests.
10. The Olympia Theatre – October 18, 1966
Some concerts on this list are bound to get a little more shine due to their historic nature, like this gig at the Olympia Theatre in Paris from 1966. This was the first time that The Jimi Hendrix Experience, with Mitch Mitchell on drums and Noel Redding on bass, played together as a group in front of a paying audience — opening for the “French Elvis Presley”, Johnny Hallyday, no less. I suppose we could have put Hendrix’s last known gig at the Isle of Fehmarn on September 6, 1970, or maybe his performance at the Isle of Wight a few weeks earlier, but both of those are kind of shambolic and more than a little morbid. Even though this show was only 15 minutes long, you get a real sense of the kind of fire Hendrix was playing with around the time he first hit the scene. The band’s first single, “Hey Joe”, sounds great, but it’s the Howlin’ Wolf cover “Killing Floor” that will leave your jaw on the floor. (The above video shows Hendrix at the venue one year later.)
09. The Café Au Go-Go – March 17, 1968
One of the great things about going to a live show is the feeling that anything can happen. The patrons of the small Café Au Go-Go Club in New York City couldn’t have known when they ordered their drinks that they were about to witness one of the great, public rock and roll jam sessions of all time that spring night. To be sure, Hendrix was known to play around town while in New York City, but this gig with Elvin Bishop on rhythm guitar, Paul Butterfield on harmonica and vocals, and Buddy Miles on the drums is some next-level stuff. It’s clear from the recording that the guys were just interested in messing around, but there are some real spine-tingling moments to be gleaned here like the pickup group’s all-instrumental rendition of “Little Wing” or the cover of T-Bone Walker’s “Stormy Monday.”
08. The Atlanta International Pop Festival – July 4, 1970
Many of Hendrix’s greatest live shows came in outdoor spaces, like this one at the Atlanta Pop Festival on Independence Day in 1970. In many ways, this Georgia gathering was the spiritual sequel to Woodstock that the fiasco in Altamont failed to be. Like Woodstock, it was billed as “three days of peace, love and music,” and you needed a ticket to enter. And just like in upstate New York, the deluge of 300,000-500,000 people crying out slogans like “music belongs to the people” forced the organizers to open the gates and let everyone in completely free of charge. For his part, Hendrix actually delivered a set that was far more cohesive and tight than he had given the summer before, albeit without any of the iconic highlights. A rare performance of “Room Full of Mirrors” is a real gem from this show as is the extended “Red House” jam.
07. The Berkeley Community Theatre – May 30, 1970
Loose is the operative word when it comes to describing this concert, which took place just outside the confines of the University of California. In the context in which it was performed, it’s actually an interesting contrast to the mania of the anti-Vietnam War demonstrations that were taking place right outside the venue. In his own way, Hendrix addresses the tension permeating the atmosphere in his intro to “The Star-Spangled Banner” when he asks the crowd to get on their feet and stand for the national anthem, reminding them that “we’re all Americans.” For their troubles, he then proceeds to knock them down back on their asses with seismic versions of “Purple Haze” and “Voodoo Chile (Slight Return)”. For real music nerds, it should be noted that this show was one of the very few instances in his career when Hendrix didn’t tune his guitar down a half step and instead played this entire gig in standard tuning.
06. The Fillmore East – January 1, 1970
The one and only performance of the short-lived Band of Gypsys came at Bill Graham’s Fillmore East. The only reason this project came to fruition in the first place was due to a legal settlement between Hendrix and Ed Chalpin of PPX Recordings, whereby the latter would receive total rights to one release by the former. It was a messy situation all around and one that Hendrix wasn’t about to resolve by giving Chalpin the tapes that would make up Electric Ladyland, so instead he enlisted his old Army buddy Billy Cox to play bass and Buddy Miles of Electric Flag to play drums for a special live album project. It’s hard to say that Band of Gypsys was superior to the Experience, but this show isn’t without its merits. “Them Changes” with Miles on lead vocals is funky and fun in a way that Hendrix rarely was while performing live, but it’s the song “Machine Gun” that takes the cake. At a runtime of 12:40, it’s by no means succinct, but with that signature, simulated-gunfire riff and wandering, adventurous solos, it’s one of the most thrilling tracks in Hendrix’s canon.