Left to his own devices, Jimi Hendrix likely never would have been onstage at 2 a.m. on August 31, 1970, in front of 600,000 cold, tired hippies huddled together on an island in the English Channel. Instead, he’d have been ensconced inside his just-officially opened Electric Lady Studios in New York’s Greenwich Village, continuing work with drummer Mitch Mitchell, bassist Billy Cox and producer Eddie Kramer on the ever-morphing body of material he planned to feature on his fourth album.
But Electric Lady had bills to pay, and throughout his last year on earth, Hendrix interrupted this precious studio time to make money touring and headlining various au courant rock festivals. A year on from his triumphant performance at Woodstock, which by June 1970 had been commercially released both in the U.S. and the U.K., Hendrix remained one of the most in-demand performers in rock ’n’ roll. Stressed out by both financial and creative matters, he agreed to a short European tour at the end of the summer, beginning with the marquee slot at the Isle of Wight festival, which constituted his first U.K. appearance in 18 months. Hendrix and the Experience broke in England before they did in America, but that year-and-a-half absence from the scene was an eternity for the group’s legion of fans.
Resplendent in a reddish-orange bell-bottomed outfit, Hendrix himself seems distracted as he waits in the wings to hit the stage.
Indeed, as captured in the Isle of Wight film chronicle “Blue Wild Angel,” Hendrix was apprehensive whether those early fans still cared. It probably didn’t help that The Who’s 2 a.m. set the night before was an instant classic, as much for bassist John Entwistle’s human skeleton jumpsuit as for the band’s spectacular performance of “Tommy.” Resplendent in a reddish-orange bell-bottomed outfit, Hendrix himself seems distracted as he waits in the wings to hit the stage — he’s forgotten his guitar pick, the electricity powering the stage is flickering on and off, and he needs a reminder of how to play the melody of “God Save the Queen,” the planned set-opener.
Luckily, that royal anthem, paired with Hendrix’s familiar nod to the Beatles’ “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band,” provides a perfect segue into “Spanish Castle Magic” and Bob Dylan’s “All Along the Watchtower” (itself something of a rarity on the 1970 tour). As the start of a set that would go on to feature several new and unreleased songs, some of which were not made available until the late ‘90s, these selections offer a potent, immediate reminder of Hendrix’s unparalleled virtuosity.
It’s clear that Hendrix circa late August 1970 was focused on his future. Yet as a musician who thrived in the proverbial “moment” perhaps more than any, he appears torn here between performing his old hits in the style with which his devotees had become accustomed and airing his newest creations, which featured far more than just guitar heroics. And at ramshackle events with subpar conditions like Isle of Wight (the film literally shows performers being paid from an enormous pile of cash laying on the ground), Hendrix was at the mercy of someone else’s technical acumen. Inside Electric Lady, he alone was in control.
There’s no getting around the fact that ‘Blue Wild Angel’ is a snapshot of three musicians playing in the wee hours of a chilly, windy night far from home.
As such, it’s impossible to watch this performance without the realization that Hendrix would be dead three weeks later, especially because the new songs are some of the most dazzling. There’s no getting around the fact that “Blue Wild Angel” is a snapshot of three musicians playing in the wee hours of a chilly, windy night far from home — no theatrics or flaming guitars are found here, just humanity. Nevertheless, greatness is occasionally captured.
Even league-average renditions of “Hey Joe” and “Foxey Lady” are still better than most band’s greatest achievements, while fresh jams like “Ezy Rider” hint at tantalizing new directions — Mitchell’s frantic opening drum break, Cox’s chugging bass foundation and Hendrix’s righteous proto-metal riffage. The closing “In From the Storm” is even better, shifting from boogie blues to delicious, double-time grooves that in many ways presage the future of hard rock. (I hear shades of Hendrix’s playing here in Led Zeppelin’s “When the Levee Breaks,” which wouldn’t be released until the following November.)
“Thank you for being so patient,” a weary Hendrix says at the conclusion of the concert. “Maybe one of these days we’ll join you again. I really hope so. Peace and happiness and all that other good shit.”
In the end, “Blue Wild Angel” proves that even if Hendrix may not have known exactly where he was headed after the Isle of Wight, the journey to get there certainly would have been unlike any other. More than 50 years later, we’re still imagining the possibilities.