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Five for Friday: From-the-Vault Jimi Hendrix Songs

Nearly 50 years after his death, we remain transfixed by Jimi Hendrix. A guitar deity who enjoyed a brief albeit potent career, he left us with only three proper studio albums. It wasn't for lack of creativity. He kept busy in the studio, yet his perfectionist streak caused many songs to remain in the vaults. While there's no shortage of posthumous releases and live albums, only three – 2010's Valleys of Neptune, 2013's People, Hell and Angels and the new Both Sides of the Sky – capture his late-career sessions with an air of authority. Co-produced by Hendrix's go-to engineer Eddie Kramer, the collections reveal Hendrix's musical flexibility and restless spirit. Here are five must-hear tracks from the trio of aforementioned albums.

"Lover Man"
"Reach down baby and get my runnin' shoes," Hendrix sings early in "Lover Man," his voice already hurried and out of breath. Behind him, drummer Buddy Miles wails away in wildly untamed fashion. Bassist Billy Cox, rather than trying to keep pace (likely a bad idea), opts instead to let the groove go funky. Recorded in December 1969, this previously unreleased take of the song lives on Both Sides of the Sky and stands as a relatively early coupling of Hendrix's so-called Band of Gypsys trio. It's easy to see why Hendrix remained eager to experiment with Miles and Cox. While the lyrics take a lighthearted approach to a less-than-recommended romantic scenario, "Lover Man" breathes fire, launching with dastardly blues licks before locking into a forceful rock n' roll stomp.

"Mannish Boy"
"Mannish Boy" ranks as one of the more historically significant cuts on Both Sides of the Sky. This ferocious interpretation of the Muddy Waters original hails from Hendrix's first proper recording session with Cox and Miles in April 1969, arriving shortly after Hendrix's relationship with the Experience disintegrated. A few traits stand out. If "Lover Man" feels a bit uncontrolled in its stylistic shifts, "Mannish Boy" stays on message. Hendrix's guitar is static-charged, constantly landing punches and rewinding to do it again. The leader also provides plenty of space for his new bandmates, letting his guitar flat-line so the rhythm section can move to the forefront. But listen, primarily, to hear Hendrix vocally mimic the guitar between verses.

"Valleys of Neptune"
The title track of the first album in the "unreleased" trilogy – a lush, spacious, trippy journey into a world of fantasy ("singing about the valleys of the sunsets!") – seems to have vexed Hendrix for months. Throughout 1969 and 1970, he cut multiple takes of the tune with different players, including members of the Experience and Band of Gypsys. The story goes that Hendrix never found a version with which he was completely satisfied for official release. Yet the rendition here is the strongest anywhere, thanks largely to the raw and intimate mix. Bolstered by Experience drummer Mitch Mitchell and Cox, who replaced the Experience's Noel Redding, the performance reflects a band in transition – relaxed, free of proper solos, and devoted to finding a groove. Chill out and get lost in the song's orbit.

"Hear My Train a Comin'"
Plenty of versions of this blues spiritual abound, and nearly all are powerful. Hendrix taps into American folklore in the lyrics, as the song, like many blues before it, seeks salvation in new horizons offered by railways. The take on Valleys of Neptune, with the Experience, feels gloriously rough and reckless. Zero in instead on the rendition on People, Hell and Angels – culled from Hendrix's early sessions with Band of Gypsys. While still loud, it slows things down and focuses as much on Hendrix's impassioned delivery as it does his guitar work. At nearly six minutes in length, and owning a wailing tearjerker of a solo at its midpoint – a diversion that almost hijacks the song – it builds up to a final refrain wherein Hendrix's vocals are so closely recorded that he sounds eerily present.

"Things I Used to Do"
One of the joys of Both Sides of the Sky relates to the way in which it showcases Hendrix's versatility. He plays bass on Joni Mitchell's "Woodstock," sung here by Stephen Stills, and gets into a tug-o-war with guitar slinger Johnny Winter on the blues staple "Things I Used to Do." Make no mistake: This recording is a bit rough, but the slight scratches lend the rendition an air of spontaneity. At the midway point, Hendrix and Winter's guitars start sparring. Consider the battle a draw as the two don't look to showboat. Instead, their instruments become intertwined and it grows difficult to tell where one starts and the other ends. The playing evokes a virtuosic fluidity and illustrates that even a Hendrix throwaway courses with life.

March 2, 2018

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