Woodstock Performers: Jimi Hendrix
The time had come. Jimi Hendrix was up next.
This series of articles—32 in all—covers each of the artists who performed at the original Woodstock festival August 15-18, 1969. Sha Na Na had just entertained an initially bemused and then totally appreciative crowd with their well-delivered set of '50s hits. Jimi Hendrix was the final act at Woodstock.
Gypsy Sun and Rainbows
Jimi was the headliner, and the headliner closed the show. The problem was, the close was supposed to have happened the previous night. Due to the massive delays, mostly weather-induced, Hendrix finally took the stage at about 9:00 a.m. on Monday August 18, 1969.
Hendrix was already a legend by the time Woodstock rolled around, so the sound engineers and the camera team did a superb job of capturing his set. Announcer Chip Monck introduced them as The Jimi Hendrix Experience, but Jimi was quick to inform the crowd that the Experience had been disbanded, and that the new outfit was called Gypsy Sun & Rainbows.
Hendrix Performing "Purple Haze" at Woodstock
I'm the one that's got to die when it's time for me to die, so let me live my life the way I want to.— Jimi Hendrix, "Axis: Bold as Love"
Only about a third of the original crowd was still on the festival site when Jimi and his band took the stage. How fortunate they were. The now legendary two-hour set was one of the longest that Hendrix ever played, and produced songs that have become symbols not only of Woodstock, but of the times themselves.
Backing Hendrix at Woodstock were Billy Cox (bass), Larry Lee (rhythm guitar, vocals), Mitch Mitchell (drums), and Juma Sultan and Gerardo "Jerry" Velez (congas). One of Jimi's largest bands, Gypsy Sun was only a temporary band, as it turned out. Jimi had played with both Cox and Lee at the beginning of his career, and Mitchell had been part of the Experience. The truth is that they hadn't had the time to properly rehearse before Woodstock, and the only reason that the set wasn't a complete disaster was because Jimi was such a commanding presence and a great, great artist.
The setlist was a mixture of well-known Experience songs and new material. They opened the set with "Message to Love" and then moved on to "Hear My Train a-Comin'." "Spanish Castle Magic" followed that, and "Red House," a hit for The Experience, was up next. Song after song, with some like "Foxy Lady" and "Fire" being very familiar to the crowd, while others like "Mastermind," "Lover Man," "Jam Back at the House," "Izabella" and "Gypsy Woman" were unreleased at the time of Woodstock and so brand new to the festival audience.
Jimi Hendrix Performing The Star Spangled Banner at Woodstock
All I did was play it. I’m American, so I played it.— Hendrix, when asked about The Star Spangled Banner, on The Dick Cavett Show a month after Woodstock.
The Star Spangled Banner was actually not played on its own, but was part of a medley of songs lasting over 30-minutes that included "Voodoo Child (Slight Return)," "Stepping Stone," "Purple Haze," and something that became known as "Woodstock Improvisation," which Jimi played unaccompanied. When the rest of the band joined in again, they continued with their final number, "Villanova Junction."
Throughout the set, Jimi was almost apologetic for the loose feel of the newly formed band. He tried to tie things up by giving something special to the crowd. In footage from the show, he can be heard saying "OK, now don't laugh at us. We gonna try this one song called "Valleys of Neptune..." Oh, no, I forgot the words of that, I forgot the words of that! I can't do it." Instead, Jimi gave the crowd something he knew they wanted to hear, "Hey Joe."
Gypsy Sun only performed twice more as a unit before disbanding.
Five Musical Facts
- America's favorite cowboy Roy Rogers was supposed to close Woodstock with a rendition of "Happy Trails." He declined the invitation.
- Woodstock was not the first time Hendrix had ever performed The Star Spangled Banner. There are nearly 50 live recordings of Hendrix playing the anthem, and 28 of those were made before Woodstock.
- Hendrix performed an encore, which was rare for him. He delighted the dwindling crowd with "Hey Joe," which was his first hit song.
- The organizers had actually given Hendrix the chance to go on at midnight of Day 3, but he opted to be the closer instead. As a result, Woodstock became the only major morning performance he ever gave.
- Sadly, Hendrix died a little more than a year after his Woodstock appearance. He was only 27.
© 2019 Kaili Bisson