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Searching for Jimi Hendrix
The Right Stuff/EMI

Okay, this record is supposed to showcase Jimi Hendrix's great songwriting prowess by having mostly non-guitar-oriented musicians rework his tunes. Fine. But by neglecting to include any real guitar players on this list of Hendrix reinterpreters, the people at The Right Stuff break Sacred Guitar Law No. 1: No one is above the instrument. Not even Jimi.

What this means is that once an artist is established as a heavy rock guitar god, he is nothing but. Remaking Hendrix into some sort of popular crossover-all, which is what this tribute intends to do, is fallacious. He is not anything like a black militant rapper like Public Enemy's Chuck D. ("Free at the Edge of an Answer," a song inspired by Hendrix). He is not anything like a country-crooner like Rosanne Cash ("Manic Depression"). And he is not anything like a Top 40 dame like Taylor Dayne ("The Wind Cries Mary"). He instead is a deity to long-haired, largely white, loner, virtuosi-in-waiting guitar aficionados everywhere. From Trailerparktown, USA, to lower Vladivostok, Hendrix is revered. Not in the urban strip, D.'s territory. Not in Main Street's diners, Cash's territory. And not in the discos, Dayne's stomping ground. Hendrix, by virtue of his instrument and sound of choice, is closer in spirit to those lonely white boys wearing Rush tour T-shirts and hanging out in comic book shops than to those black kids in Air Jordans or those Bud drinkers in alligator boots. What's next: Mstley CrYe, Iron Maiden and Krokus salute the Pointer Sisters?

This Hendrix CD has lots of other baggage, too. Earlier this year, the cable channel Bravo began airing the accompanying documentary, Searching For Jimi Hendrix. Directed by Chris Hegedus and D.A. Pennebaker, who documented the comings and goings of Bob Dylan (Don't Look Back) and David Bowie (Ziggy Stardust), the hour-long video follows the tribute performers from studio to studio. Los Lobos, Charlie Musselwhite, Laurie Anderson, Cassandra Wilson, Five Blind Boys of Alabama, Neville and Sheena Staples, Mark Isham and D., Cash and Dayne are seen as actually being on the search for Hendrix. Not that they'd find him in a recording booth. Or, for some, in their music.

Not that it's not cool for various artists to interpret various musics. I love Kathie Lee Gifford's interpretation of "White Christmas," I'm especially fond of Puff Daddy's "I'll Be Missing You," and you can't beat the Doors's variation of Elvis's "Mystery Train," "Black Train Song," with an aluminum bat. But when genre-crossing is done so poorly, as on this tribute, one has to be weary of politically correct motivations. White hard-rock guitar players or African-American guitarists like Vernon Reid or Stanley Jordan or even Prince would probably have much more interesting things to say about Hendrix than Dayne, Cash or Five Blind Boys. But since today's listening public does not appreciate hard rock -- or African-American guitarists -- Vernon Reid remains a non-thought.

Los Lobos is probably the only truly appropriate choice on this album. Not only is guitarist David Hidalgo excellent and capable of handling any takes on Hendrix, but the band itself is somewhat of a Hendrixian anomaly on the pop landscape. Comprising all Mexican-American musicians, the band -- probably one of the best acts working today -- attacks the predominantly white institution of rock and roll with abandon, much in the way Hendrix did lo these 30-some-odd years ago. And as it's complimentary to say a white vocalist sounds "black," so -- in the case of edgy rock -- is it sometimes complimentary to say a Mexican-American or black guitar player sounds "white." Thus, of Hidalgo, the man's a gringo.

"Are You Experienced," the song Los Lobos reinvents, resembles the original almost to the note. The muted chops of the intro aren't quite as rhythmic as Hendrix's, but the expectancy in the march of the drums, the Eastern flavor of the loose guitar work, which seems to fill oceanic amounts of space, and the off-in-the-distance conversational delivery of the lyrics are reverential to Hendrix completely. The thing least lackadaisical about the song is the solo, which is delivered in real time; not like Hendrix's studio version, which was played in reverse and sounds like what one would imagine dancing backward to Philip Glass in slow motion would sound like. Of the 11 songs on Searching, this Los Lobos track is the most listenable.

That's not to say there aren't some other mildly bright spots. "Little Wing" by Los Illegals is one. This version is a jumpy take on a rather somber tune. Though also Latino, the band reveals its rather whitish, countrified side here. Hard, low-tone plucking hogs the forefront as drums skip in double time with the highly charged glare of feedback groaning in the background. Even the lead singers' harmonic voices seem more Protestant than Pentecostal. It all goes down well, though.

Other winners are jazz singer Wilson's "Angel" because, well, it's Wilson, a great popular music interpreter; bluesman Musselwhite's "Here My Train A Comin'" because, well, Musselwhite would sound good singing a 1040-EZ tax form; and Anderson's "1983." The techno songstress brings an orchestral moodiness to the soundscape, especially to the refrain, "forever," which she breaks in half with her voice as a yodeler would a yelp. The overall texture, harmonic yet ominous, is enjoyable.

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