Music To Take You Higher: Roll Me Up and Smoke Me When I Die

Live at Berkeley – The Jimi Hendrix Experience

If you’re like many people of my generation, you’ve heard all of Jimi Hendrix’s studio albums so many times that they lost their bite a long time ago. As groundbreaking as his music sounded when it was first released, time, repetition and familiarity have worn down the impact of songs like “Purple Haze”, “Voodoo Chile” and “All Along the Watchtower” and the feeling of wonder and awe they first inspired.

Unfortunately, Jimi didn’t live long enough to develop a huge back catalogue of music and things weren’t made any easier or clearer for his huge following who wanted to hear more from him after his untimely death in 1970. He hadn’t been in the ground for long before vultures began to descend, armed with reel-to-reel tapes of studio outtakes and tentative late-night jams that were hastily crafted into “new studio albums” such as Crash Landing, Loose Ends, and Midnight Lightning. These sketchy releases did nothing to further Hendrix’s legacy and did little more than confuse most of his listeners, and for years there was little to do other than listen over and over again to his three studio albums and a handful of live releases of varying quality.

Thankfully, in the last decade or so, the Hendrix family has gained control over Jimi’s legacy and recorded output and has been putting together reissues, live recordings and carefully compiled studio albums that follow notes and instructions found in the guitarist’s journals so that they finally make sense and exhibit the cohesion that’s been missing.

Jimi Plays Berkeley is the latest official release from the Hendrix estate and it’s one of the finest to date. A film version has been in circulation for decades, and it vividly captures Hendrix at an exciting and vital turning point in his career.

After the dissolution of the original Jimi Hendrix Experience a year previously, Hendrix had been experimenting with several different musical formations. He played with a big band at Woodstock, but by most accounts the performance – despite the iconic version of “Star Spangled Banner” he played at the festival – was a debacle and an unfocused mess.

Right after that, he pared the large ensemble down to a trio of musicians that he called Band of Gypsies that featured Billy Cox and Buddy Miles. Band of Gypsies favoured very moody, spacious improvisational explorations that to many people’s ears represented the finest music Jimi ever played or recorded, but unfortunately they were not a commercial success, so Hendrix’s manager exerted a lot of pressure on him to reform the original Experience. Unfortunately, Jimi’s relationship with Noel Redding, the original bassist, had soured and the two men had no interest in playing together again. So, a compromise was struck with Band of Gypsies bassist Billy Cox teaming up with the original Experience drummer Mitch Mitchell to form a synthesis of Hendrix’s most compelling outfits that was once again dubbed “The Jimi Hendrix Experience”.

This CD captures the entire second set of the band’s performance on May 30, 1970 at the tiny Berkeley Community Theatre, and it remains one of the most vital and compelling examples of Jimi’s live work currently in existence. By 1970, Hendrix had clearly grown tired of the expectations of his audience that compelled him to do such things as play his guitar with his teeth or set it on fire. He wanted to be taken seriously as a musician while maintaining enough commercial popularity to continue to finance his studio explorations, and by the time of the Berkeley concert, it’s clear that he’d worked out how to do that. The show featured a mixture of old favourites such as “Hey Joe”, “Foxy Lady” and “Voodoo Child”, that offered all of the fire, noise, distortion and pyrotechnics that his audience demanded, but it also showcased newer challenging material such as “Pass it On”, “Hey Baby” (New Rising Sun) and “Machine Gun”. On these songs, it’s easy to hear how confident Jimi had become as his guitar work and solos drew from a much larger palette of tones and colours than he’d ever exhibited before. Exploratory and jammy, Hendrix was on the brink of breaking his sound wide open when he played Berkeley, which makes the realization that he would be dead in a few short months all the more tragic.

Before spending time with this recording, it had been several years since I’d really closely listened to Jimi Hendrix’s music. Hearing the band bravely feel their way through this amazing, transcendent material has reminded me of what I found so magical about Hendrix’s music in the first place. It’s like the best possible kind of reunion with an old friend. No matter how many times you’ve listened to Jimi Hendrix in the past, you will certainly hear something new here that may cause you to look back and remember. Or, if this is your first encounter with Jimi and his music, it’s a great place to start. I envy you the journey.

Live at Berkeley was first released as a CD recording in 2003 and has just been reissued to coincide with the Blue Ray pressing of the Jimi Plays Berkeley film.

Heroes by Willie Nelson

With his long red hair, bandana, cowboy hat, twinkling eyes and mischievous smile, Willie Nelson was recently voted as one of the most recognizable people on the planet. Yet, it’s funny how many young people know about his pot busts and his attitudes towards renewable energy, but who still can’t name any of his songs.

For someone like me who’s been listening to Willie since my dad played “Stardust” on the cassette player on road trips when I was a teenager, that’s pretty hard to believe. After all, Willie Nelson is one of the most popular recording artists of all time, and he’s written some of country music’s most enduring songs from “Crazy” (written for Patsy Cline) to “Night Life” and “Funny How Time Slips Away” that have been record by everyone from Aretha Franklin to BB King. There are simply too many songs to mention, and at 79 years of age, Nelson is showing no signs of slowing down.

Unfortunately, Willie’s restless spirit and tireless work ethic have not always resulted in top-notch recordings. There have been years that he’s released up to six albums that could have been whittled down to one or two classics. But, that’s not the way he rolls. Willie loves to sing and record and seemingly can’t say no to anyone who tilts a microphone in his direction. So, as a result, it’s sometimes been a bit of a crapshoot when buying a Willie Nelson album. But, the good news is that his newly released CD, Heroes is one of his best recordings in years.

Cannabis Culture readers will certainly be most interested in hearing Willie and Snoop Dogg come together to sing the pot smoke’s anthem “Roll Me Up and Smoke Me When I Die”. It’s a lot of fun, but it would be a mistake to simply download the single and forsake the rest of the songs on Heroes. Ultimately, “Roll Me Up” is a nice piece of fluff and an amusing novelty, but it is hardly the greatest song on the record. Of infinitely more interest is “Just Breathe”, a Pearl Jam song that Willie and his son, Lukas duet on. It surpasses the original to become a meditation on love, care, mortality and a convincing evocation of the bonds between father and son. Add to that a take on Coldplay’s “The Scientist” that kicks the crap out of the original version and a woozy sing along run through of Tom Waits’ “Come On Up To The House’” that features Lukas and Sheryl Crow, along with some great originals such as “A Horse Called Music” featuring Merle Haggard on vocals and you’ll realize that Willie has another winner on his hands. Wonderful songs, warm and beautifully phrased vocals, all wrapped around with Nelson’s unmistakable guitar work make this a great album for people who don’t think they like country music to dip their toes into. Heroes is definitely worth a listen.

Wasted by Lukas Nelson and the Promise of the Real

Wasted is Lukas Nelson”s second full-length studio album. While his self-titled debut featured an uplifting mix of guitar driven rock songs and riveting ballads that were designed to appeal to a wide range of listeners, Wasted is a much darker, troubling and intense album to contend with. Like Neil Young’s iconic Tonight’s the Night, Wasted explores the dark side of life and the fallout that ensues from too much partying and skirting around the edge of emotional and physical danger.

The songs balance regret and thankfulness as Lukas bares his soul for his listeners to come through every situation he describes with a resolve that leaves him sadder, but wiser by each song’s end. It’s not all a downer though. Lukas’ wit, humor and sincerity save the day here as he balances his intensity with a vulnerability and wink of the eye that is very appealing. Wasted is a slow burner of an album that takes time to get into. The initial dark and harshness of its aspect slowly give way to reveal one of the greatest albums 2012 has offered so far. Recommended.