I've never been a fan of the Eagles' lame hybrid of wimp-rock and pretend-country. Yet I've often admired the poetic zinger slung by former-Eagle Don Henley, the famous one inspired by a fleeting glimpse of a Grateful Dead bumper sticker on an aging Fleetwood. "Don't look back," he warned his fellow baby-boomers. "You can never look back."
But why not? As Henley's contemporaries and other disenfranchised citizens of the post-Woodstock Nation grow conspicuously fat and bald, please forgive them for failing to move on. Surely, somebody realizes that graying boomers comprise a significant demographic, because on this Yuletide, enterprising retailers have unveiled a provocative line of gifts aimed at 40- and 50-somethings who cut their musical teeth on lots of Hendrix and perhaps a bit of herb. Or was it a little Hendrix and lots of herb?!
Whether Santa, the original holiday hippie, actually remembers the '60s and '70s is open to debate. But his message is clear: The gift that keeps on giving is worth giving one more time. So go ahead and indulge the unchanging tastes of an old friend with a stocking overflowing with Hendrix--or his fellow travelers Joni Mitchell and Bob Dylan. Through the magic of music, it's apparently possible to revisit Woodstock and get back to what Mitchell once described as, ahem, "the garden." Commercially speaking, her Eden is both a beginning and a means to an end.
As a creator of new product, Jimi Hendrix never really died, did he? His concerts have been bootlegged prolifically in every conceivable format, and studio outtakes have surfaced with unerring regularity since his demise on Sept. 18, 1970. Luckily for Purple Haze-ophiles who want to scrutinize every wail and whisper, the guitarist was an insatiable workaholic, recording nonstop during his brief three years in the international spotlight at studios like his own Electric Lady in Manhattan. And since the well-traveled Hendrix toted his own flashy reel-to-reel recorder while on tour, myriad after-hours sessions also exist on tape from clubs, cribs and, well, nearly anywhere he hung his hat.
To discover what's available and what's mere myth, Black Gold: The Lost Archives of Jimi Hendrix (Billboard Books) is a tantalizing inventory of his expansive sonic muse. Yes, Hendrix jammed with fellow icons like Janis Joplin, John McLaughlin and Frank Zappa, but where's the evidence? And what about rumored collaborations with Miles Davis or Quincy Jones? You can dig for treasure and truth within these 288 fact-filled pages, a veritable third-person diary of the guitarist's entire professional career. The prose of author Steven Roby, a tireless detective of all things Hendrix-ian, is dry but spot-on--and will send you scurrying to the rumpus room to re-examine your favorite CDs or to the record shop to snatch up another rarity.
Commemorating what would have been his 60th birthday last month, fresh Hendrix includes Blue Wild Angel: Jimi Hendrix Live at the Isle of Wight (Experience Hendrix/MCA), available as an intense 70-minute CD or an expansive two-and-a-half-hour documentary on DVD. Backed by rock-steady Billy Cox on bass and dervish-like Mitch Mitchell on drums, Hendrix was in a no-bullshit mood on at the Isle of Wight, just 19 days before his death. Resplendent as a peacock in a swirling red blouse and chomping on gum, he strokes and strums as if chased by Mephistopheles, often with eyes clamped shut and fingers flyin'. Like the famous Band of Gypsies show captured at the Fillmore East eight months earlier, Angel chronicles Hendrix as musician rather than the freak-show version--with matches and lighter fluid. Purists, no doubt, will applaud every tantalizing moment.
Unlike Hendrix, Mitchell, now a dignified senior citizen, has the luxury of updating her resume every year or two with a new record. Her latest, Travelogue (Nonesuch) is an ambitious and luxurious double-CD retrospective, featuring a 70-piece orchestra, a 13-voice choir and vivid artwork by Mitchell herself both in the booklet and on disc. Charted by noted jazz arranger Vince Mendoza, the 22 cuts include both familiar tomes like "The Circle Game" and "Woodstock" (oh, the irony!), as well as eclectic and carefully wrought sketches such as "Cherokee Louise." Start-to-finish, the music is lavish in detail and unerringly lovely. And, as a bonus, Mitchell is in fine voice. With a mature tone sculpted by cigarettes and time, she has become that solid jazz singer she has always wanted to be.
Travelogue is also too much of a good thing. Too many instruments. Too many tunes played at dirge-like tempi. A palette of songs so chromatically saturated that the colors ooze rather than enlighten. Thank goodness for those whimsical respites by Wayne Shorter, Mitchell's constant musical companion over the last two decades, which provide sporadic relief from Mendoza's wall of sound.
To a degree, the Shorter-Mitchell tandem's got a Laurel & Hardy flavor. The quintessential musical minimalist, Shorter portrays the trim Stan Laurel: an unassuming figure who says lots with small gestures. Sadly, the saxophonist's compact but piping soprano is not enough this time. Despite flashes of undeniable beauty, the package's prevailing mood of self-importance fatigues the ears.
I prefer Joni-Lite. Moon at the Window (Tone Center) by the Rachel Z Trio is a straight-up jazz-piano record with a crisp all-Mitchell repertoire. Like Travelogue, Moon's program glows with diversity, reflecting both the hits and obscurities worthy of re-interpretation. A flexible flyer who doubles as an art-rock princess in Peter Gabriel's band, Z possesses a deft touch and quick wit, enhancing the accessibility of old-school players like, oh, Vince Guaraldi (composer of the Peanuts soundtracks) with double-fisted, no-holds-barred improv. Fans suspicious of the glut of tribute records currently on the market, please lighten up: Moon is a first-class jazz disc by any standard, regardless of any association with the repertoire of St. Joan.
The difference between Mitchell and Dylan, a pair of troubadours fascinated by wordplay, is that B-Zimmy will never craft a self-conscious career retrospective like Travelogue. This December, in lieu of Dylan's Greatest Hits, Vols. 12 & 35, the Ol' Master Painter reappears as ringmaster of Live 1975: The Rolling Thunder Revue (Columbia/Legacy), a two-disc-plus-EP that frames not a glimmer of pretense.
Dylan-lovers fondly remember the RT-Revue as a rollicking, circus-like assemblage of true stars and restless wannabes. They traversed North America by buses and campers with an itinerary that skipped the usual arena stops in favor of smaller theater-sized venues. The gypsy cast included Dylan's pals, both old friends (Joan Baez and Roger McGuinn) and fascinating newcomers (T-Bone Burnett and raven-haired fiddler Scarlet Rivera). The resulting music was loose-limbed and elemental, stripped of everything but the fun. Imagine an all-star band enhanced by the medicinal qualities of tequila (maybe?), yet comfy with careening polkas and primal Chuck Berry licks: that was the sound of Thunder.
Even Baez, customarily prim and straight-laced, screams from the gut in careening duets with the boss. Twisted together in rough-hewn harmony and soaring above madly strummed guitars, they are delirious, and delightfully so. You can read the rest of the story in Larry Sloman's spirited liner notes. His exuberant, on-the-scene memories are enhanced by never-before-seen photos of backstage hijinx--with Dylan all painted up in the bizarre whiteface of a tragic carnival clown. The happy-sad images, both visually and sonically, are weird and wonderful.