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Jimi Plays Berkeley - DVD by Jimi Hendrix

Jimi Plays Berkeley is a flawed but vital documentary of one of Jimi Hendrix's last public performances. Filmed at the Berkeley Community Theater in May, 1970, a few weeks after the shootings at Kent State, the film attempts to depict both the performance of the Jimi Hendrix Experience and the atmosphere of Berkeley, CA at the height of the political unrest in the late sixties. There is certainly a symbiotic relationship between the two, expressed most obviously by Hendrix in protest anthems like his "Machine Gun" and his legendary improvisation on the National Anthem, and that's fortunate for the filmmakers. On the one hand, it's somewhat clear that the footage of rioting in People's Park inserted into the marathon performance of "Machine Gun" is there largely to fill in gaps where no concert footage exists; yet the match is close enough that it transcends its limitations to clarify Hendrix's artistic point.

One great thing about this video is the fact that it captures what is for me and many other observers Jimi Hendrix's greatest band. Consisting of Mitch Mitchell, the drummer from the original Experience and Band of Gypsies bassist Billy Cox (actually, his association with Hendrix dates to their shared tenure in an U.S. Air Force band), the rhythm section is tremendously supple. Mitchell is free to explore and attack his kit a la Elvin Jones while Cox reliably lays down a soulful groove. Whereas original Experience bassist Noel Redding was a guitarist at heart, Cox is every bit a natural bassist steeped in R&B. Not that he can't step out of that box to match the challenges laid down by Hendrix--check out the nascent heavy metal of their arrangement of Chuck Berry's signature "Johnny B. Goode," one of the film's great highlights.

Jimi Hendrix was more than a great rock guitarist, more than a great musician, more even than an icon. Hendrix's guitar, like Charlie Parker's alto sax or Coltrane's tenor, laid down a gauntlet, defining the music that followed on the instrument. Even if you are eschewing altogether the music that followed in his wake--fusion & heavy metal seeming the two most obvious examples--your choice is still defined in the post-Hendrix era as a rejection of that strain.

Bringing this back down to earth for a moment, another aspect of Hendrix's playing that is well documented in this film is his mastery of the blues. Like so many great improvisers, the blues underlie everything he did, no matter how far out they seemed on the surface. The performances of "Voodoo Chile" and "Hear My Train A Comin'" captured here demonstrate that he had few peers as a blues guitarist, their names including B. B. King, Buddy Guy, Otis Rush....

Jimi Plays Berkeley clocks in at a little under fifty minutes. The film doesn't entirely succeed as either a documentary or a concert film, but wisely errs on the side of the latter. No matter; the performances are so compelling as to all but wash away the sins of the film crew to cement this as an essential document for anyone serious about Jim Hendrix. Perhaps if Jimi had survived longer to see the project through...a familiar lament there, though. This DVD is short on extras, but the one that is included is special--the complete, hour plus audio track to the band's second set at Berkeley, also available as a separate CD.

Additional Info

  • Artist / Group Name: Jimi Hendrix
  • CD Title: Jimi Plays Berkeley - DVD
  • Genre: Soul / Funk Jazz
  • Year Released: 2003
  • Reissue Original Release: 1972
  • Record Label: Universal Music
  • Rating: Five Stars
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