Jimi Hendrix Live at Woodstock Review
Much has been written about the short life but still-influential career of Jimi Hendrix. I’ve previously written about him in my reviews of the Criterion Monterey Pop box set and particularly in my review of the 1973 Jimi Hendrix documentary. His performance at the Woodstock festival is rivaled in its impact only by the Monterey one, but most people know it for his instrumental deconstruction of “The Star-Spangled Banner” as that’s the part of it that featured in the film of the event. (“Voodoo Child (Slight Return)” was amongst the extra performances included in the 1994 Director’s Cut reissue.)
Due to traffic, rain and other delays, Hendrix had to play at nine o’clock on Monday morning instead of midnight on Sunday. By the time he appeared on stage, much of the audience had left. Hendrix was backed by his Experience drummer Mitch Mitchell, with his old army buddy Billy Cox on bass. The lineup was augmented by a rhythm guitarist, Larry Lee, and two percussionists, Jama Sultan and Jerry Velez.
About fifty minutes of Hendrix’s set has been released on video and DVD before, but this two-disc “Deluxe Edition” shows us the entirety of it. It’s topped and tailed by “The Road to Woodstock”, featuring interviews with recording engineer Eddie Kramer, co-promoter Michael Lang (who fascinatingly wanted the festival to end with Roy Rogers singing “Happy Trails”), publicist Michael Goldstein, tour manager Gerry Stickells, the late Experience bassist Noel Redding (a noticeable non-participant in the 1973 documentary), Jama Sultan, Mitch Mitchell, Billy Cox, Larry Lee, and Sha Na Na vocalist Rob Leonard (who preceded Hendrix on stage) This fifteen-minute feature makes up the first chapter on the DVD and does an admirable job of putting the event into context not only of Hendrix’s career but also of the time and place – the Woodstock area of New York State, as Kramer points out, having been a favoured artistic enclave since the 1920s. After the show, we return to our interviewees for a few minutes.
In between we have the footage of the Woodstock set, filmed by Michael Wadleigh and his cameramen. If you’ve seen the Woodstock film, it’s much as you’d expect: filmed in 16mm (though presented throughout in 4:3, not using the multiple split screens of the feature film). No doubt student guitarists would like to see more of Hendrix’s hands to study his technique, but for most people this piece of rock music history is extremely well presented.
Message to Love
Hear My Train A-Comin’
Spanish Castle Magic
Jam Back at the House
Voodoo Child (Slight Return)
Star Spangled Banner
The Deluxe Edition of Live at Woodstock is released on two all-regions DVD-9 discs in NTSC format. As I say above, it’s presented in 4:3, which is faithful to ratio of the 16mm footage that makes up the bulk of this DVD. Especially compared to the more recent interview footage (still in 4:3 but shot on video), it’s soft and somewhat grainy, but that’s the way it’s always looked and is quite acceptable.
On to the second disc, and “A Second Look” (87:31) is a reprise of the set, without the interviews but incorporating black and white video footage shot during the performance. This doesn’t cover all of Hendrix’s set, so the gaps are plugged by the appropriate shots from the main feature. No doubt this will be essential for completists, but for everyone else it’s the main feature all over again with a large amount of it at different angles in grainy black and white. There’s a notice about the picture quality, which is well deserved: it’s very grainy and riddled with tracking errors and artefacts. I suspect this will be a one-watch item for most people, but it’s admirably comprehensive of the disc producers to include it.
Both versions of the set have three soundtrack options: a Dolby Digital 2.0 mono version, and 5.1 tracks in Dolby Digital and DTS. On the main feature, there’s practically nothing to distinguish between the latter two: both are clear and render the instruments very well. The surrounds are used mostly for crowd noise, and there’s some left-and-right separation where appropriate. On “A Second Look”, the Dolby 5.1 track is mixed louder than the DTS for some reason (it isn’t on the main feature) and sounds somewhat “fuzzy” as a result. The mono track is mixed very quietly and is distinctly weedy in comparison. All tracks feature some tape hiss, which is no doubt unavoidable and isn’t distracting. There are seventeen chapter stops on the main feature and sixteen on “A Second Look”. Subtitles are included for the interviews and on-stage dialogue but not (for copyright reasons I suspect) for the song lyrics. They are not available for “A Second Look” at all but are for the special features on Disc Two.
There are three short interviews on the disc. The first is a press conference (6:45) that Hendrix did in Harlem, two weeks after Woodstock on 3 September 1969, to announce his performance at a benefit concert for the United Black Association. This is an audio recording, set against an incomplete film recording, with still photographs and white screen filling the gaps. In addition there’s a rather rambling reminiscence from Billy Cox and Larry Lee (9:41) about Hendrix’s Nashville roots and an interview with Eddie Kramer (9:53) in which he describes the challenges of recording a festival as large and chaotic as Woodstock. Finally, “Memorabilia” is a thirty-second of ticket stubs, Hendrix’s set lists and the poster. The Cox/Lee and Kramer interviews and “Memorabilia” are 16:9 anamorphic, the press conference in 4:3.
Anyone who has any interest in 60s Western culture, rock music and Hendrix in particular will certainly want to own this DVD as it’s a fine presentation of an important moment in Western popular cultural history.