Hearing Jimi Hendrix sing “I’m a man,” feels somehow inauthentic. Sure, we know he was a man like any one of us, but was he really? His legacy has propped him up to legend, even god-like, status. He can sing it all he wants, but folks aren’t likely to believe him at this point. How can someone so monumentally talented, so otherworldly and storied, be made from the same stuff as the rest of us? Despite all this, that’s just how Both Sides of the Sky, the last in a trilogy of archival and unreleased Jimi Hendrix material, begins with Jimi’s take on Muddy Waters’ blues standard “Mannish Boy.”
There are a lot of hangups associated with posthumous collections of unreleased materials. One has to wonder why the material remained unreleased in the first place, especially when it’s been so long. Of course, there’s the desire to suss out any bit of material from especially talented artists, especially in instances when they’ve died tragically, young or both, but compilations like this run the risk of coming across as money-grabs. It’s clear, however, that a great deal of thought went into the production and release of Both Sides of the Sky, as well as the two prior installments in the trilogy, 2010’s Valleys of Neptune and 2013’s People, Hell and Angels.
Hendrix was raised on blues — Robert Johnson, Waters, B.B. King — and he never strayed too far from it in his own music. Rather, he elevated and pushed its conventions further than they have ever gone before his untimely death in 1970 at 27.
He would often find what he was looking for during in-studio improvisations, recording all the while. The Experience, Hendrix’s backup band, would sometimes just ask Jimi for a key and a tempo and play according to his lead. Many of the songs on Both Sides of the Sky present that improvisational spirit, and, if Jimi had been alive to see them through, most if not all of these songs would have been retooled over and over again to make a more polished finished product. Given what they are, the record is an interesting capsule of his creative process at the very least.
Standout track “Mannish Boy” finds Hendrix at one point scatting in perfect harmony with his guitar, as if merging with the instrument itself. “Hear My Train A Comin’” will satisfy any blues guitar solo fanatic’s wildest expectations. “Send My Love to Linda” showcases Jimi’s talent even in restraint before letting all hell loose in classic Hendrix fashion.
“Cherokee Mist”, the seven-minute guitar and sitar jam that closes the collection, suffers a bit from the unfinished, unfocused nature of the source material. “Lover Man” features Jimi slipping into the Batman theme song in a moment of studio levity that showcases a playful side to the guitar god. Lonnie Youngblood’s vocals and saxophone add a smooth, soulful dimension to the static-tinged edges of Hendrix’s riffs on “Georgia Blues.” Other collaborations are less endearing. The songs “$20 Fine” and “Woodstock” featuring Stephen Stills on vocals don’t quite showcase Jimi’s talent and the tracks haven’t really stood the test of time.
Hendrix, of course, was at Woodstock, where he unleashed his discordant rendition of the “Star-Spangled Banner,” one that would surely cause John Stafford Smith to rip his wig off. His interpretation of the anthem is now synonymous with the turbulence of the era it was born out of — the Vietnam war, Richard Nixon, Black Power, the student protest movement. The same could be said for Jimi’s sound as a whole. To hear him play is to listen to the raw, violent and uncertain energy of the times transposed onto six electrified strings.
The songs on Both Sides of the Sky are scraps we were never intended to hear, but they are scraps from a genius tuned into the zeitgeist of his day. This compilation provides a fascinating look at the creative process of one of the most remarkable musicians we’ve ever seen.
Both Sides of the Sky
By Jimi Hendrix
Legacy Recordings, 2018