Hendrix: Dead, Live and Unearthed

A British dance band called Beautiful People recently released a full-length CD called If 60's Were 90's, and if the title's question causes a tiny back-of-the-throat hippy-hating retch, it probably shouldn't be dismissed entirely. Because, you see, Beautiful People's claim to fame on this disk (you ever heard of them before?) lies in the band's having sampled the notoriously difficult-to-sample Jimi Hendrix. Over 50 samples, to be more precise. The feat speaks more for the group's lawyers than for their musical acumen, but the advance single "Rilly Groovy" is finding airplay on the strength of a single Hendrix riff (from "Bleeding Heart") and a tape loop of Jimi live at Monterey Pop intoning, what else, "rilly groovy."

All of which would be a perfectly excusable and disposable footnote to generational nostalgia, except that it comes as the most recent drop in a flood of Hendrix revivalism. A month or so back, MCA opened the gates by re-packaging and re-releasing the Jimi Hendrix ExperienceÕs Are You Experienced?, Axis: Bold As Love, and Electric Ladyland. Not long after that, ex-Bad Company frontman Paul Rodgers -- who's making quite a little career comeback by covering other people's material (remember that Muddy Waters tribute?) -- released a five-song EP credited to Paul Rodgers and Company, called The Hendrix Set, featuring Rodgers' buddy, ex-Journey guitarist Neil Schon. And now, an inevitable all-star line-up has pitched in to record Stone Free: A Tribute to Jimi Hendrix. In the 23 years after Hendrix dropped dead and became rock's greatest casualty, you'd think someone would have bested his legacy. From the sound of things, no one has.

If you have access to a multi-disk CD changer, you can do a funny thing with all the new Hendrix memorabelia. You can place the three originals in their slots, followed by Stone Free and The Hendrix Set, and by exercising just the slightest dexterity with the remote, you can surf through three versions of the three songs that the three packages have in common.

"Purple Haze," originally released by Hendrix as a single, is track three on the re-packaged Are You Experienced?, and track one on both Stone Free and The Hendrix Set. Hendrix, of course, is Hendrix, and the Cure avoid his shadow entirely by turning "Purple Haze" into a mopey, maudlin dance track that reduces the song's signature riff to little more than window dressing. It works, as these things go, just fine, and the Cure come away having put their own personal stamp on the tune. Singer Robert Smith sounds like he's about to cry, and the beat goes on a good three minutes after having made its point, which is either what you love or what you hate about the Cure.

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One disk over, Rodgers and Company turn in a completely humorless bludgeoning. Schon plays Hendrix straight, but this band's tendency is to stomp rather than rock, and as virtuosic a rock singer as Rodgers is, he doesn't add anything to the material. Hendrix's vocals scream sex, but Rodgers' vox sound like they're stroking something more like his ego.

"Stone Free" suffers the same beating from Rodgers' group, and over on Stone Free, a disappointingly bloodless reading from fellow guitar god Eric Clapton, who turns the tune into the sort of laid-back little rollick he's been passing off as genius for years.

Rodgers' "Manic Depression" -- surprise -- sucks, and by the time you're this far into the disk you can't help but wonder why all this beautiful Hendrix music is inspiring the urge to tie Neil Schon to a tree and hammer a Stratocaster through his heart. Schon's hamfisted attempt at the song sounds even worse when you compare it to the Stone Free version, guided by the capable hands of vox-git duo of Seal and Jeff Beck. If you believe what you read about Beck, this is precisely the sort of histrionic, over-the-top playing that bores him to tears, but the man does have it in him, and the solo here sounds like Beck might be the only guitarist on the disk who can walk into Hendrix territory and play Hendrix's music without getting all self-conscious about it.

Comparing the three common songs, you reach two easy conclusions: 1) the original material is genius, and thank god for the re-issue, cuz your old LPs are scratched beyond recognition and your turntable doesn't turn anymore anyway, and 2) Paul Rodgers and Company make a good argument that CDs should be shaped like little spheres, so at least the cats could play with them.

The only remaining question is about Stone Free, and it's a largely strong mixed bag. Only the Cure, Nigel Kennedy, P.M. Dawn and Pat Metheny do any real messing around (with "Purple Haze," "Fire," "You Got Me Floatin'" and "Third Stone From the Sun," respectively), and these hold the most interest. Body Count's "Hey Joe" is inept and depressing, but Belly's "Are You Experienced?" is inept and gorgeous. Buddy Guy's take on "Red House" probably should have been the original, and the Pretenders make "Bold As Love" their own, but the Spin Doctors version of "Spanish Castle Magic" and Living Colour's "Crosstown Traffic" both seem to hit the notes while missing the soul. In particular, somebody should have stopped Spin Doctors vocalist Chris Barron before he embarrassed himself this way.

But just cuz you can't win doesn't mean you shouldn't play, and there's a good amount of fun to be heard on Stone Free. Even Paul Rodgers -- who contributes "I Don't Live Today" here with Slash and the Band of Gypsies -- manages to infuse some life into the reading. But the final lesson learned is: Hendrix owns Hendrix, and he took it with him. It might be fun to play in the mud, but everyone else is just gravedigging.

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