Given that Jimi Hendrix's career as a frontman lasted only about three years, it might be hard to believe that there's still great material that hasn't been officially released even 40 years after his death (of course, unofficially released is a different matter). But here is Jimi's three-night stand at Winterland in San Francisco from October of 1968, which, despite excellent recordings by Wally Heider, sat largely unreleased until 2011. A single disc was compiled and released by Rykodisc in the late '80s (there was also a hard-to-find three-track bonus disc), but had been out of print for years when this box set arrived.
The Winterland shows were notable for a few reasons. The original Jimi Hendrix Experience had been together for two years and were probably playing at the height of their powers in October 1968 (they would break up in June of 1969). They had about the most hectic schedule imaginable. This was before the days of setting up a tour that proceeds from city to city in an orderly manner. Most gigs were one-offs that the band would fly to, then fly home. Back home, they'd record for a day or two, then fly off again to gigs. Three days at one venue were a luxury and the San Francisco crowds encouraged experimentation, leading to a nice synergy between performer and audience.
Although presented as three days, there were actually six shows. The Experience repertoire was not that deep, so most tunes were played at least twice, if not more ("Purple Haze" was played in every set). Jimi's m.o. was that the first set was mostly "the hits," or at least known tunes, while the second set generally had some surprises. Producers John McDermott and Eddie Kramer have done a really nice job of sequencing and editing to maintain much of the ebb and flow of Jimi's sets while avoiding too much track repetition. Jimi's opening sets were practically identical on October 10 and 11 so the producers chose to focus mostly on the second sets from those days. In fact, disc one (October 10) is the entire second set intact, with the insertion of "Foxey Lady" from the first set. It's clear from the opener, "Tax Free" (covering "a couple Swedish cats"), that Jimi is in complete control with his guitar, moving from standard Strat tones to raging feedback at will. "Lover Man" and "Sunshine of Your Love" are pretty loose, but Jimi really digs in on an amazing "Hear My Train A-Comin'." Howlin' Wolf's "Killing Floor" with Jack Casady is next, then Jimi turns to some fan favorites to close the set. Jimi's version of "The Star-Spangled Banner" at Woodstock is well known, but the Experience had been performing it for quite some time by Woodstock. This version from the 10th makes Woodstock sound downright conventional. It's nearly three minutes into this version before anything remotely resembling "The Star-Spangled Banner" emerges.
Disc two is also mostly the second set, but it's edited a bit more. The set is intact until "Foxey Lady," except "Spanish Castle Magic" was removed as the second tune. This version of "Tax Free" is about the same length but is actually quite different from the first night. Both "Like a Rolling Stone" and "Hey Joe" get some assistance on organ from Herbie Rich of the Buddy Miles Express (who opened the show). After "Foxey Lady," we go back to the opener from set one, "Are You Experienced?," with Virgil Gonsalves (also from the Express) sitting in on flute. An excellent version of "Red House" also comes from the first set, while "Hey Joe" was the closer from the second set. It's interesting to hear how Jimi plays the songs differently by adding different licks or guitar figures in order to keep the old warhorses interesting, and here he uses the microphone stand as a slide to great effect.
On the third night, Hendrix really opened things up and pulled out a few surprises. The first three tracks on disc three originally opened set one. Then we go to set two for several surprises. "Manic Depression" and "Little Wing" were very rarely played live ("Are You Experienced?" as well, for that matter) and Jimi's take on "Sunshine of Your Love" would have been a surprise to most as well. "Manic Depression" through "Red House" (in order) comprise a good portion of what was originally set two, then it's back to set one for the closing sequence.
Disc four has something from each night: tracks that didn't fit in the sequencing for some reason or another but were too good not to be included. Again, Kramer and McDermott's sequencing is well thought-out. The bonus disc opens with "Foxey Lady," the opening number from set two on the 12th. From there, we get the first three tunes played (in order) from the first show on the 10th, featuring another great version of "Red House" (15 minutes!). Then we move to the last two tracks from set one on the 11th. About three minutes of feedback and a snippet of "Bonanza" introduce "The Star-Spangled Banner," while a slower than normal "Purple Haze" closes the set. As an additional bonus, there's an interesting, almost confrontational interview with Jimi from about a month after the Winterland shows.
Throughout his stage announcements, Jimi constantly talks about "playing with feeling." There are numerous great photos enclosed that really show what he meant by that. They're the icing on the cake that is Sony/Legacy's Winterland box. The Jimi Hendrix Experience gave us some great music from these shows and McDermott and Kramer have done a great job of making what could have been a slightly tedious listen for some (if presented in its entirety) into a thoroughly enjoyable set for any Hendrix fan.