This concert documentary, from Jimi Hendrix’s May 30, 1970, performance on the Cry of Love tour, should be required viewing for the School of Rock’s Advanced Wah-Wah Pedal Techniques class.
At two different points in the film, first at soundcheck (when he’s wearing moccasins!) at the Berkeley Community Theater and then in performance, the camera lingers on an extreme closeup of Hendrix’s foot as he coaxes fire from the Vox pedal. In the first instance, during soundcheck, his foot moves very little, up and back in a small and deliberate way. He’s nominally playing a few lines from the national anthem, in the process showing the camera how slight changes in the pedal’s travel produce dramatic changes in sound. Later, in performance, Hendrix is seen in leather shoes, yet still his motions are precisely coordinated: He barely moves the pedal as he caresses a melody into shape. Then when he opens things up and starts to get loose, the pedal becomes an extension of his hands, introducing carefully calibrated levels of flame, heat and intensity into what become epic solos.
Jimi Hendrix’s moccasin-shrouded foot operates a Vox volume pedal.
Those scenes (and other similar closeups, including several where he’s using his teeth) provide perspective on Hendrix as a touring musician during the last months of his life. It was a period of some professional tumult: He’d shuffled his band in the aftermath of Band of Gypsys, retaining bassist Billy Cox and bringing back drummer Mitch Mitchell from the Jimi Hendrix Experience with the intention of developing material for a new album. But the trio was booked into large halls and some arenas. The Berkeley date, a month after the tour began, includes crowd-pleasers from all phases of Hendrix’s career as well as a few new tunes, including the suite-like “Hey Baby (New Rising Sun).” (Some of the material has been released in audio form; “Live at Berkeley,” from 2003, contains the entire second show.)
On the Berkeley stage, Hendrix appears as he often does, as an instant-energy larger-than-life showman. But in those same moments it’s possible to see him as a musician attending to the details of craft. The icon bringing the expected fire-breathing to “Purple Haze” is also focusing on the long game, the peaks and valleys of the journey and other stuff his listeners might not notice. Like the exacting staccato attack of the pick as it hits the strings on “Machine Gun” over and over again.
To watch Hendrix at close range is to appreciate the devices he used to discover (and then nurture) moments of euphoric bliss and outbreaks of menacing dissonance and everything thrilling in between.
Certainly Hendrix had megatools to excite his listeners; what’s palpable here is his nightly quest to excite himself and his collaborators. He’s looking for something other than what he did on, say, “Johnny B. Goode,” the night before, and his search is riveting regardless of what he finds. On that tune’s first stop-time break, Hendrix leans into a swerving and dramatic pitch-bending cry; on the second, he’s adding fistfuls of notes to the original Chuck Berry source code; by the fourth, he’s gnawing at the strings with his teeth, emulating a spastic metal claw. These are the pursuits of an improviser, not simply a performer. To watch Hendrix at close range is to appreciate the devices he used to discover (and then nurture) moments of euphoric bliss and outbreaks of menacing dissonance and everything thrilling in between.
Unfortunately the filmmakers didn’t just capture Jimi Hendrix at close range. Some performances are incomplete. There are on-the-street interviews with inarticulate fans trying to describe Hendrix. There are scenes of tear gas, protesters marching, students reading newspaper accounts of protests, jittery shots of kids trying to sneak into the concert — glimpses of counterculture wildness without much context. Better to focus on the free-range journeying Hendrix did on stage. Not just that night but over and over throughout that tour, achieving a balance of show-business drama and musical boldness that remains, all these decades later, something to marvel at. And learn from.