And the MVP goes to...
First, a setup. Sixteen musicians, most of them slinging guitars, performed for more than three hours at Ruth Eckerd Hall Monday night, all there to play the music and honor the legacy of Jimi Hendrix. The lineup was heaven on toast for guitar geeks and Jimi freaks, two groups with considerable overlap. The featured players included Jonny Lang, Joe Satriani, Dave Mustaine, Dweezil Zappa, Eric Johnson, Zakk Wylde, Ana Popovic and others, constituting a rainbow spectrum of six-stringers — all with clear reverence for Hendrix, but with vastly differing levels of understanding and empathy toward the legend’s music.
The Experience Hendrix tour operates on a basic guiding principle: More is more — and then some. The crowd of 1,553 couldn’t seem to get enough.
There were points where I’d clearly had enough. And a couple of times when I didn’t think I could take it anymore. But then something cool would happen and I’d get lured back in. Witnessing the show was like riding a Tilt-a-Whirl inside a gyroscope; the performances ranged from exuberant and expert to loathsome and just plain dumb. To give a thorough account of the marathon would require a staggering word count and more ibuprofen than I care to consume, so I’ll serve up a highlight and a lowlight, and hit on some in-between moments.
Seeing as the concert was basically a good-hearted cutting contest, it seems only appropriate to name a Most Valuable Player …
Satriani — with a big assist from his sidemen: Bassist Doug Pinnick of King’s X and drummer Kenny Aronoff. They had the advantage of playing as contained unit, whereas the other artists were backed by a core rhythm section, often in mix-and-match combinations. But Satriani and company came on late in the second set, when audience fatigue was a factor. They proceeded to deliver a jolt of raw power-trio energy that made hanging around well worth it.
I’d always taken Satriani for little more than a showboat shredder in dark wraparounds, but he brought considerable imagination, if not subtlety, to his treatment of Hendrix material. Yes, he fried his fretboard at times, but elsewhere — as in a mashup of “Third Stone From the Sun” and “Machine Gun” — delved into dense chordal textures and crowd-pleasing noise tricks. His song selection was terrific: “Crosstown Traffic” into “Manic Depression” into “I Don’t Live Today” — then somehow raising the bar with the stop-start intensity of “If 6 Was 9,” (insert “Third Stone”), then finishing with “Voodoo Child (Slight Return).”
And now, regrettably, the other side of the coin.
Wylde attacked the stage like he was jumping over the top rope at a WWE match — a hulk of a man in a sleeveless jeans jacket. He lumbered up the far aisle and proceeded to play a long flurry of notes intended, apparently, to amaze folks. The result was a bunch of sound and fury, signifying nonsense. He returned to the stage and played “Rock Me Baby,” metal-style, and plodded through “Like a Rolling Stone,” singing clumsily and filling each break with pointless, drawn-out solos.
Then came the atrocity — for which Wylde should be tried for crimes against music.
He turned “Little Wing,” arguably Hendrix’s most beautiful and nuanced tune, into a gluttonous showcase of six-string excess, playing an endless jumble of light-speed notes. Hey, there’s re-interpretation, and then there’s desecration. I’ve been to Hendrix’s grave in an idyllic park near Seattle. I can hear him rolling over in it from the other side of the country.
By the way, just to put a bow on it, Wylde made a two trips up the side aisle. The first was a rock cliche that incited the audience; the second was just plain dumb.
Phew. Let’s see, what else?
In a concert that was vocally challenged — whoever gave thin-voiced Eric Johnson a mic for “Power of Soul” should be called on the carpet — Jonnny Lang injected some R&B-inflected grit into “All Along the Watchtower” (during which, strangely, Wylde played the recorded guitar solo note-for-note), “The Wind Cries Mary” and “Spanish Castle Magic.” On the latter, Lang splintered the ceiling tiles trading solos with Mato Nanji of Indigenous (who proved to be an able utility player throughout).
Ana Popovic brought ample personality to her singing as well, played some fiery guitar and had the good sense to wear a colorful stage outfit to counter the men’s palette of blacks and grays.
In the nice-surprise category, Calvin Cooke and Chuck Campbell of the Slide Brothers, a sacred steel group, manned their pedal steel guitars for a sludgy take on Elmore James’ “The Sky is Crying,” providing the most legit blues sequence of the night.
And finally, a nod to team player Dweezil Zappa, who opened the show with former Band of Gypsys bassist Billy Cox on “Freedom” and, later, locked axes with Johnson to effectively reproduce the psychedelic mayhem of “Are You Experienced.”
OK, not quite finished. Ultimately, the stars of the show were Hendrix’s songs and imposing aura. No other rock icon has the kind of ongoing artistic clout and stuffed vault of material to warrant, let alone fuel, a guitar orgy of this sort. The concert may have been called Experience Hendrix, but it was not a Hendrix experience, because that cannot be duplicated.