Experience Hendrix LLC/Legacy Recordings

First of all, I think it’s important that you understand something: sooner or later, there isn’t going to be any more “new” Jimi Hendrix music to dole out. The man is dead – 40 years dead this coming September, in fact. We can miss him; we can celebrate his life; we could spend a long, long time playing “what if” and theorizing where Hendrix was heading with his music and what he’d be playing now at the age of 67. The fact remains, however, that he only lived so many days and spent only so many hours out of those days with a guitar in his hands and the tape rolling. And out of those hours – even for Jimi Hendrix – there were bound to be some moments that, if up to the man himself, would never have been replayed for the public’s consumption.

The reason for this cautionary ramble is to say out loud that there have been examples of “previously unreleased” Hendrix music over the years that have been little more than audio Weekend at Bernie’s situations. Whether it be the work of well-meaning Hendrixian archivists or simply greedheads looking to cash in on flavoring substandard backing tracks with the essence of a legend is up to the listener. Caveat emptor.

And as time goes by, it’ll probably just get worse.

Who “owns” the music of Jimi Hendrix? Contracts, verbal agreements, handshakes, and blood can all take a beating when challenged in the legal system. In the beginning, it was Jimi’s music – in the end, it still is. And he’s not here to defend himself.

Having said all that, here’s the good news: Valleys of Neptune. The family-owned Experience Hendrix LLC is the force behind Valleys and it appears to have been put together with a level of love, respect, and taste. (The only time I got a little rattled was discovering in the liner notes that two of the tracks – “Mr. Bad Luck” and “Crying Blue Rain” – included bass and drum tracks that were re-recorded 17 years after Hendrix’ death. But maybe that’s just me. The fact that it was at least the original musicians redoing their parts – bassist Noel Redding and drummer Mitch Mitchell – helped.)

What we have here are some of the final sessions that the original Jimi Hendrix Experience (Hendrix, Mitchell, and Redding) recorded – and some clues as to where Hendrix was headed after the Experience melted down in 1969.

For sure, the Jimi Hendrix Experience broke new ground between ‘66 and ‘69 by making use of the studio setting to layer, pan, twist, and reshape their sound. One of the band’s best performances on Valleys of Neptune, however, is a single-take run through “Hear My Train A Comin’”: no overdubs, no tricks – just 7:32 of voodoo raunch and psychedelic blues wail. The band shows off their mastery of dynamics, letting the song swing as it wishes between pure stripped-down bone-marrow thump and full-gale shield-your-eyes assault. Hendrix’ vocal sounds completely loose and funky as he scats against his Strat’s wail. At about the 6:00 mark, the rhythm crashes to a halt, leaving the moan of Hendrix’ amp to tell the story for a few moments before the band makes one more pass through the main theme. It’s a great example of what the trio was capable of with nothing to hide behind.

At their core, the Experience was a blues band first and foremost – and Valleys of Neptune offers several examples, from the swirl of “Ships Passing Through The Night” (Hendrix pushed his Strat through a revolving Leslie organ speaker) to an eight-minutes-plus gut-wringing “Red House”. Also included is a driving version of “Fire” recorded in ‘69, slightly stretched from the original on Are You Experienced.

Percussionist Rocky Dzidzornu always managed to push fellow musicians a little further than they’d usually go in a jamming situation – and that even applies to Jimi Hendrix and company. (Dzidzornu – or “Rocky Dijon” as he’s sometimes referred to in vintage album credits – is the fellow who nudged the Stones closer to ol’ Beelzebub with his conga playing on “Sympathy For The Devil” and led the way into the jam on the original studio version of “Can’t You Hear Me Knockin’”.) Valleys offers several examples of Dzidzornu in the studio with the Experience in 1969. The added percussion gives a layer of depth to the blues of “Lover Man”, while the slow burn of “Crying Blue Rain” – a mix of “Morning Dew” sweetness mixed with some nasty John Lee Hooker riffing – explodes into a wild-ass Yardbirds-style rave-up.

And then there’s the ride that Dzidzornu and the Experience take on a cover of Cream’s “Sunshine of Your Love”. The quartet establishes the main theme early (Hendrix’ Strat handles the “vocals”), then everything shifts gears at about the 2-minute mark, morphing into a muted chukka-chukka rhythm guitar by Hendrix dancing with Dzidzornu’s congas. Mitchell and Redding circle around the outside of the groove, eventually entering from below with Redding’s bass leading the way. Hendrix works up to a full-chop freakout and everything spirals upward until – WHAM! – they slam back into the “Sunshine” riff.

Valleys of Neptune includes a number of post-Experience tracks featuring Billy Cox on bass. (Redding’s last live performance with Hendrix was on June 29th, 1969.) The original “Stone Free” was the B-side of the Experience’s first single in 1966 (“Hey Joe”) – it also turned out to be one of the first songs that Hendrix chose to work through in the studio with Cox. In the version on Valleys of Neptune, Hendrix’ unmistakable hybrid lead/rhythm work is in the forefront, but Cox brings a new edge to the piece, working off of Mitchell’s drumming like they’d been doing it for years. Brace yourself – especially if you’re driving – when you first listen to “Stone Free”. At the 2:18 mark there’s going to be an explosion of sound coming from your right speaker. Don’t panic and jerk the steering wheel, convinced that the aliens have finally landed in some sort of extraterrestrial freight train – it’s only Jimi being Jimi.

Don’t look for any extended soloing on the title track – but that doesn’t mean that “Valleys of Neptune” lacks for guitar. While Mitchell and Cox roll and tumble over and around each other, Hendrix lays down some thick-toned rhythm work that ranges from the chunky funk of the verses to moments of gentle mists straight from those Neptunian valleys themselves.

Valleys of Neptune treats us to a locked-in-and-grooving Experience – plus, we catch some glimmers of where Jimi might have headed in the years to come. On the whole, the album feels right – and without the man himself here, that’s about as good as it’s going to get.