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“Dogearing the Downsized Stature of Hendrix’ Woodstock Set and What, if Anything, it Means”

What comes to mind when you think of the biggest, most meaningful moments in music history? Bob Dylan plugging in at Newport in 1965 and the release of “Rapper’s Delight” might be a couple. But come on, nothing could top Woodstock, the 1969 festival that housed, per report, half a million people at one venue, and is claimed to have centralized the entire movement of peace, love and rock and roll.

A lot is made in the press about Hendrix’ set at the festival, particularly in respect to his feral, psychedelic take on the “Star Spangled Banner,” wedged halfway through his second 45-minute set. What gets glossed over, usually, it seems, is the fact that Hendrix, still technically billed as The Jimi Hendrix Experience but now having accumulated the “Band of Gypsys” for backing, despite being a headlining act, played to only about 40,000 people, less than one-tenth of the festival’s total attendance. This is, of course, because weather delays pushed the set back to Monday, on which day the Experience took the stage at the crisp hour of 9 a.m. and rocked the place for two hours. 

Obviously, the festival had been set to end Sunday night. The Experience were given the option of going on at midnight that night but reportedly elected the next morning as their preferred slot. Anyway, judging by Hendrix’ stage banter, his mood was incredibly crisp and he didn’t even mind playing to the limited audience. For all we know, actually, he might have even preferred it — there was probably a lower chance of getting hit with a beer bottle or a giant piece of sod (although as far as I’ve gathered crowds weren’t quite as psychotic back then as they were in the ’80s and ’90s). Almost without question, he still got paid the same for the festival. According to Wikipedia, too, Hendrix at this point was the highest paid artist in rock, which probably means it was harder to rattle his cage and also that he’d been exposed to an amount of notoriety that made a relatively low-key setting more soothing than disappointing. 

Still, I found this tidbit pretty noteworthy — it’s really unfortunate in a sense that so many people missed the most-anticipated act of the festival, that is. Truth be told, too, it’s a great set, aside from just the “Star Spangled Banner,” with big Experience hits [1] “Hey Joe”; “Fire”; “Foxey Lady” and “Purple Haze” all showing up in flying colors, and blues-y romps like “Message of Love”; “Red House” and “Hear My Train a-Comin’” providing an electric platform for Hendrix’ blistering guitar skills to take shape. Actually, up to this point Live at Winterland [2] had been my favorite Hendrix live album [3], but I think it’s been overtaken by Woodstock, which for whatever reason, up until now, I’d either never heard all the way through or just neglected out of some oversight. Of course, it would be easy to blame my negligence on society’s apparent fixation on the entertaining but not necessarily all-occluding “Star Spangled Banner” performance, or the general conception of Woodstock as a place of peace, love and nakedness, all in Caucasian form, which, to a certain extent, it certainly was. So Hendrix leaves with the money and white people leave with the spotlight and herein lies the exact chasm I was trying to challenge, or bridge, with this post.

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[1] According to Wikipedia, Woodstock was Hendrix’ first performance since the disbanding of his former group, The Jimi Hendrix Experience, which had included Englishmen Noel Redding and Mitch Mitchell.

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[2] Somewhere on my blog there’s a playlist that replicates the ORIGINAL Live at Winterland album, which is the one I vouch for, as opposed to the sprawling, pointless boxed set or the watered down Winterland shortened album currently available in their sequences on Spotify.

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[3] Much to my chagrin, too, Radio One is not available on Spotify as one concise, near-perfect document in rock that it once was on CD, but the BBC Sessions albums, as far as I can tell, is just an expanded, slightly more overlong and less focused permutation of the crisp and astonishing former Radio One

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