A white-bearded gentleman in tie-dye sat alone outside Ruth Eckerd Hall amid a cloud of smoke, fashioning a long feather earring, a Rasta-colored pucca shell necklace, and a black cigar holster. A cluster of other Hendrix die-hards ambled around, beers in hand and leather abound, all anticipating the Experience Hendrix Tour — an all-star tribute to the late great guitarist this past Sat., Sept. 20.
“If you think you’ll break out your air guitar at some point tonight, raise your hands,” a radio host from The Eagle 107.3-FM asked, prompting a few middle-aged women to get to their feet before the show even started. After a wildly successful roundabout this past spring, the tour launched another national excursion and landed in Clearwater with an impressive roster of musicians ranging from Johnny Lang to Noah Hunt, Zakk Wylde, Rich Robinson and Buddy Guy.
The night began with a brief and sweet introduction from Janie Hendrix, Jimi’s sister and CEO and President of the Experience Hendrix Tour, who then welcomed Billy Cox, Rich Robinson, and Chris Layton.
There was no shortage of psychedelic photomontages, hair flips, or tongue-in-string guitar solos. The introductory trio played in front of a great wall of 15 or so amps and dove into “Message of Love,” in which Billy Cox, an old member of the King Kasuals and Band of Gypsys and longtime friend of Hendrix, cooed, “Everybody come alive, everybody live alive, everybody love alive…” A whole plethora of memorable cuts were scattered throughout the first set, among them, “May This Be Love,” “Easy Rider” and “Foxy Lady.”
The musicians alternated throughout the show, introducing and re-introducing even more rock veterans like Kenny Wayne Shepherd, Eric Johnson, and Doyle Bramhall II. Zakk Wylde, no stranger to success in the music industry since his days with Ozzy Osbourne, ironically joined the stage towards the end of the show’s first half with the smooth rolling anthem “Are You Expereinced?”
“Every time he flips his hair, a baby Viking becomes a man,” my friend said astonishment, prompted by Wylde’s burly stature and behind-the-head guitar solos. He stepped out into the audience with an intense solo during “Little Wing” and was then joined by Eric Johnson and Chris Layton to play “Purple Haze” before intermission commenced with a swooping “God bless Jimi Hendrix!”
The second half of the three-and-a-half-hour show shifted in atmosphere. After getting riled up from Wylde’s earlier ecstatic guitar shredding, cuts like “The Wind Cries Mary” evoked a softer vibe. “Angel” was even accompanied by a sentimental slideshow of childhood and family photos. Old letters melted on and off the screen reading, “Dearest Dad, I just left Houston and we’re now in Dallas…” in Jimi’s own handwriting. It brought about a feeling of familiarity, like we, the audience, had all known Jimi as a good friend.
Johnny Lang paid homage to the legend with his smoky smoldering vocals, Kenny Wayne Shepherd with an incredible and tireless five-minute guitar solo — but it was Buddy Guy, a chief influence to Hendrix and a legend young beyond his years, who really set the tone with his slow and muddy voice and guitar solos. He shared a few old comedic tales here and there, which sort of felt like listening to the Gospel of Hendrix.
All epic performances aside, the one truly admirable thing about this show is that it never once let us forget who the real star performer is, and he's been off this earth for more than three decades