Sunday, October 10, 2010

Jimi Hendrix's "Drivin' South"

Thanks to Matt Hickey, I'm now in possession of another one of my holy grails of record collecting: JH's Drivin' South, originally released on the Brit cheapie label MFP back in the '70s, reished on Jungle (with liner notes by ex-Only Ones guitarist and worthy scribe John Perry) in Y2K. As previously recounted, I heard this album once in 1974, while playing chess in some guy's college dorm room, and remembered it for 35 years after that. Hickey found one for cheap (he says) on eBay. I hope he's not kidding, as I've seen it listed on Amazon for a bill and a half, which is more than I'd pay for any rekkid.

Drivin' South was recorded by Ed Chalpin, the shady producer who'd signed Hendrix for a dollar back when the guitarist would sign any piece of paper that was put before him. It documents Jimi a year before his debut single "Hey Joe" was released, playing blues on a Fender Duo Sonic straight through a Twin with Curtis Knight's fairly pedestrian R&B band at some dive in New Jersey -- maybe the one where Les Paul saw him play -- on the day after Christmas 1965. The Hendrix estate succeeded in having the Jungle release withdrawn, to deny Chalpin his pound of flesh, but it remains a fascinating artifact of what Hendrix sounded like after three years, post-military service, as an R&B sideman, chomping at the bit for someone to give him the chance to show what he could do. (It's certainly not like Experience Hendrix is trying to cover his pre-discovery tracks; in fact, they're about to release a pricey box set that includes a full CD's worth of early session work with Don Covay, Little Richard, the Isley Brothers, and like that.)

To these feedback-scorched ears, this set hits the same way as the oft-reished recordings of Charlie Christian playing at Minton's Playhouse in Harlem in 1941, or more to the point, Fort Worthian Jim Yanaway's '70s recordings of Stevie Ray Vaughan at the New Bluebird Nite Club and U.P. Wilson at Tack's Fun House, which somebody oughtta release, dammit, especially the latter. Comparisons being odious, it cuts to ribbons the early live recordings of the Yardbirds with Eric Clapton, which were more valuable for their energy, vibe, and group dynamic than for their nascent guitar god's prowess at that point in his career. (The one with Sonny Boy Williamson makes it seem more 'n likely that the story about SBW going back to Helena, Arkansas, and telling the future Hawks/Band that "Those guys in England want to play the blues so bad, and they play them so bad" was authentic.)

The second side of Drivin' South's not outstanding. "Killing Floor" lacks the pedal-to-metal drive Jimi brought to it with the Experience, and his vocal and guitar are obscured on the recording by Curtis Knight's less-than-stellar rhythm guitar. The version of "Bleeding Heart" (the first JH blues I ever heard, in the '69 Royal Albert Hall version on the cheapie import More Experience album) with Jimi singing is truncated. The two Jimmy Reed songs, sung by Knight, are, well, Jimmy Reed songs, although the second one boasts a pretty hot solo. "Get Out of My Life, Woman" just lacks energy. Only on "Last Night" does Hendrix manage to light a few fireworks. And "What'd I Say" reminds us that the Spanish Castle referred to in "Spanish Castle Magic" was the same one where the Wailers of "Tall Cool One" fame used to play.

First side, however, is the business, opening with the title track which featured prominently in the JHE's BBC sessions when Ryko and later MCA finally got around to releasing 'em. The Albert Collins influence is strong here. Evidently Jimi was doing the playing-with-his-teeth routine by this time, as evidenced by Curtis Knight's commentary: "He's playing it with his teeth, y'all. Eat that guitar. EAT IT!" On "Traveling to California" and "Sweet Little Angel," Jimi covers Albert and B.B. King in the hyperactive, almost-out-of-control manner of the early, great Buddy Guy, all wild bends and staccato sprays of notes, and almost manages to extend a couple of sustained notes into feedback. (The vid below is an outtake.) You can also really hear Jimi as the bridge between Buddy and Wayne Kramer's wild-ass, lysergically-enhanced rides on the MC5's Kick Out the Jams. And Jimi takes the piss out of "I'm A Man" the same way he did when he covered "Hoochie Coochie Man" with the Band of Gypsys.

JH had a lot more tricks up his sleeve than are on display here: Curtis Mayfield-style arpeggiated balladry, electronic experimentalismo, and orchestrated arrangements almost symphonic in scope. But here, you get to hear what it was that got him recognized in the first place. It's stunning to realize how far beyond this he progressed in just five years. Thanks, Hickey!


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