Forty years ago, several hundred thousand people (an exact number will never be known) gathered in Bethel, N.Y., for the Woodstock Music and Art Fair. Nearly everyone who was anyone in rock—Jefferson Airplane, The Who, Janis Joplin, Sly & the Family Stone, Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young, Richie Havens—played at that mud-soaked music fest. And nearly everyone who was in the audience got to check them all out.
But only a very few actually got to see Jimi Hendrix perform—a performance of such rock guitar virtuosity that even today, it functions as Woodstock’s keynote address.
Even for those who could say that they were there at Woodstock, most will remember Hendrix’s performance through the numerous CDs and DVDs capturing that day in rock history.
A number of factors conspired against Hendrix: poor logistical planning, crappy weather, oversized crowds—not to mention an unpolished pickup band playing backup. Hendrix’s set—the final one of the three-day weekend festival—was supposed to start at 3 a.m., but didn’t get rolling until 8 a.m. on Monday, Aug. 18, 1969. By then, most of the Woodstock Nation had to get home. The weekend was over. But those who stuck around were treated to a truly special morning—breakfast with Jimi, so to speak. Not that he was treated as anything special. As he began to play, people on the periphery of the amphitheater started to clean up behind a thinned-out crowd.
The festival organizers had anticipated 150,000 concertgoers and probably got at least twice that many (and possibly the “half a million strong” that Joni Mitchell’s song, “Woodstock” boasts), and their other logistical skills were off, too. Shows each night ran well into the dawn, and on Sunday a lengthy rain delay pushed Hendrix’s set well into the next day. It would be one of the most unusual performances of his career.
Concert promoters announced Jimi’s band as the “Jimi Hendrix Experience,” but he quickly corrected the announcer and called his group “Gypsy Sun and Rainbows.” Earlier that year, Hendrix had disbanded The Experience, the group that he formed in London in the mid-‘60s. The Jimi Hendrix Experience had recorded three discs, two of them, Are You Experienced and Electric Ladyland, rank among the greatest recordings in popular music. A few months after Woodstock, Hendrix would debut his new group, the Band of Gypsies, with bassist Billy Cox and drummer Buddy Miles.
The band was the largest that Hendrix had ever performed with, but it was also the least polished. The situation forced Hendrix to play more out front than usual. That was especially evident in the searing peaks and ringing chords of the bluesy “Red House,” at the end of which Jimi broke a string. Lee sang lead on “Mastermind” while Hendrix attended to the instrument malfunction, then Jimi returned with an equally stunning “Foxy Lady.”
When Woodstock organizers realized how far they had fallen behind schedule, they had offered Hendrix a midnight slot, but he turned them down. By then it had become apparent that history was being made, and Hendrix wanted to preserve his spot and the climactic performance. Now, he was playing as if he was trying to put an appropriate finish to the three days of remarkable music that preceded him.
About midway through his two-hour set, he launched into a medley of tunes including “The Star-Spangled Banner.” The national anthem had long been part of the Hendrix repertoire; he played it nearly 50 times in his career, but never as long and with as much riding on it as at Woodstock. His performance, filled with blasts of feedback that mimicked the sound of fighter jets, which had become familiar from news coverage of the Vietnam War, was backed only by Mitchell, who changed deftly from routine accompaniment to a more propulsive approach akin to the late Rashied Ali backing John Coltrane, as Jimi’s sounds grew more abstract. Forty years later, it still ranks as one of the greatest guitar performances ever.
“I’m an American, so I played it,” he explained to TV talk show host Dick Cavett in an interview weeks after the performance. When Cavett tried to characterize Hendrix’s take as unorthodox, the guitarist corrected him. “It’s not unorthodox; I thought it was beautiful.” And indeed, to all those on the wrong side of the generation gap who denounced Woodstock Nation as un-American, Jimi had the proper retort; they were embracing freedom, not their opponents who yearned for conformity.
Woodstock was one of the last great Hendrix performances. He spent the last 13 months of his life struggling with lawsuits relating to contracts signed long before his first recording was released, and with the rigors of trying to keep a post-Experience band together.
Musically, he was moving in many directions at once: Aspects of jazz, art-rock and other styles filtered through the many sessions and live shows from Hendrix’s post-Woodstock phase. But Jimi’s performance at Woodstock in general and his urgent reclamation of the National Anthem in particular, is a great coda on his career. In a nutshell, it is what Woodstock was all about. It’s why this 40th anniversary is worthy of celebration.
Martin Johnson is a regular contributor to The Root.