Jimi Hendrix was arguably the greatest of all rock guitar gods ever to bend a steel string and was certainly the most innovative. Hendrix’s indelible legacy and ground-breaking music will be honored Saturday (4/5) at Merrillville’s Star Plaza Theatre by a legion of his famous guitar-slinging disciples.
Jimi once asked, “Are you experienced?” By the time the final notes of the aptly titled “Experience Hendrix” concert are struck all inside the Star will certainly be able to respond – “I am!”
This all-star annual tribute clocks in at nearly three hours and has been produced worldwide over the last few years by John McDermott with the full blessing and cooperation of the Hendrix Estate, now headed by Jimi’s sister Janie Hendrix. The talent roster changes from tour to tour and sometimes even from show to show, but it’s always top shelf.
A core rhythm section for much of the show is comprised of former Hendrix bassist Billy Cox and drummer Chris Layton of the late Stevie Ray Vaughan’s band Double Trouble.
Cox first met Hendrix in 1961 at Fort Campbell where they were stationed in the Army. The two bonded over music and became fast friends, first jamming together at the base’s service club. “We’d play ‘Green Onions’ and ‘Soul Twist’ and stuff like that,” recalled Cox of gigging with Private Hendrix. Cox and Hendrix later formed The King Kasuals which played the Southern chittlin’ circuit until Hendrix left to work with the Isley Brothers and later Little Richard. Although Cox is best known as bassist in Band of Gypsies where he anchored the groove with drummer Buddy Miles, he also clocked time with The Jimi Hendrix Experience after replacing original bass man Noel Redding near the end of that band’s run.
“I had the great privilege to play with Jimi in all of his projects,” said Cox. “Woodstock was really the first big gig I played with Jimi. We came in around the back way and when we looked out at that crowd Mitch Mitchell said, ‘I don’t know if I want to go out there!’ And Jimi said to us, ‘We’ll give to them and they’ll give back to us and we’ll all have a good time.’ He was right. It was amazing.
Cox recalled Hendrix’s famous Woodstock Festival delivery of “The Star Spangled Banner.” “That's me playing the first five or six notes in ‘Star Spangled Banner’ but we had never practiced it, so I immediately stepped back and then bang, Jimi just opened up and played from his soul.”
Together Cox and Layton provide a rock solid foundation for “Experience Hendrix” upon which several famed guitarists – Aerosmith’s Brad Whitford, Eric Johnson, Robby Krieger of The Doors, Kenny Wayne Shepherd, Taj Mahal, Doyle Bramhall II, Mato Nanji, Dani Robinson, the Black Crowes’ Rich Robinson, and former region resident Stan Skibby – perform various selections from Hendrix’s vast catalog via unique collaborations and all out jam sessions.
“It’s put together like an old R&B Revue,” Aerosmith’s Whitford said of the live show. “Different groups of people come up and play a few songs, leave and another group comes up and plays. It’s really well structured. It keeps moving and keeps the audience glued.”
“There’s two sets of drums and all the guitar players have their amps and stuff ready to go, so people just walk on and off stage all night and the music just keeps coming,” added Grammy Award winning Texas guitarist Eric Johnson, who on this tour pairs up with his pal Dweezil Zappa. “The show is pretty seamless. Everyone plays from two to five songs. You hear a lot of music. As a musician, it’s cool to be a part of this kind of thing. It’s always fun together and play music with such talented people as are on this tour.”
“Everyone approaches Jimi’s music differently on this show,” added Zappa, a returning veteran of the 2012 “Experience Hendrix” tour. “Many give their own interpretation of Jimi’s music while others play it just the way Jimi did. It’s an interesting mix and match of players and playing styles.”
Zappa told of how his rock icon father Frank was good friends with Hendrix and the two had great respect for each other’s talents and guitar prowess, but that they never had a chance to record together but is confident they would have if Hendrix had not died so young and so early into his career. Zappa is used to replicating each note when on stage with his successful “Zappa Plays Zappa” tour to keep his dad’s music and legacy alive, so he has taken that same approach when performing Hendrix’s music.
Zappa noted that while there are some “deep cut” moments in the show, fans want to and can expect to hear the best known songs of Hendrix’s catalog. “My time on stage playing is exactly however long Jimi made the songs last on the records,” said Zappa. “I play the songs just the way he did and just the way you know them.”
“It’s an amazing night with some outstanding musicians,” added Whitford now on his fourth “Experience Hendrix” tour. “Jimi is someone who impacted and influenced everyone who has picked up a guitar since the late ‘60s, whether they realize it or not. We may all have different styles and different backgrounds, but Hendrix is a common 'bond' between everyone on this tour.”
Kenny Wayne Shepherd has been a mainstay of the “Experience Hendrix” tour since it began and wholeheartedly agrees with Whitford on Jimi’s influence. “I was turned on to Hendrix basically from the git-go,” revealed Shepherd, who since the age of 15 has ended every one of his concerts with Jimi’s “Voodoo Child” a tune he will again perform on Saturday at Star Plaza.
Like Shepherd, Eric Johnson first discovered Hendrix when he was a 15 year old novice player back in 1968. “I heard Jimi and I immediately joined Mariani, a tripped out, hard-rocking psychedelic group,” he said. “I was doing a lot of listening and learning at that time, so there was a LOT of Hendrix influence in Mariani. The passion and feeling Jimi played with is what made him great,” said Johnson.
Cox is clearly proud to be a cornerstone of the “Experience Hendrix” tour which is a living and breathing memorial to the talent, music and legacy of his old friend. “Jimi's spirit is with us every night on that stage,” he concluded.
Email Tom Lounges at email@example.com