Last Night: Experience Hendrix Tour At Arena Theatre

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Experience Hendrix Tour Arena Theatre March 22, 2012

It was a guitar-gasm of monstrous proportions at the Arena Theatre when string shredders, bass thumpers, keyboard squealers, and one very, very hardworking drummer paid tribute to the musical legacy of Jimi Hendrix in a 3+ hour show that expertly mined the catalogue of the late musical genius.

In fact, there were so many musicians coming on and off the stage throughout the show - often in groups - that the venue's legendary revolving stage was at least for this night frozen. And the guitar racks were so high and heavy with instruments that an entire section of seats behind them were not for sale.

Before show, Rocks Off caught up with singer/bassist Billy Cox -- Hendrix's old army buddy and the only performer on the bill to have actually played and recorded with Jimi as part of both the Experience and Band of Gypsys. Manning his own merch table with wife by his side, he told us how the three week tour is going so far.

"It's incredible, we're having so much fun! Every night, we get to do what we want to do, and the crowds have been so great. It's life-changing, man...people come up to me with tears in their eyes afterwards. OK, God bless!"

After a short film on Hendrix's life, his half-sister Janie -- who as head of the singer's estate Experience Hendrix LLC has done great things with music in recent years -- started things off with a rousing introduction rocking a blinged-out hat and shiny shirt.

Cox then took the mike for the lead on a buoyant "Stone Free" and "Message of Love," bringing out Dweezil Zappa for "Freedom." Tony Franklin and Eric Gales delivered a strong "Manic Depression" with Gales on scorching vocals.

Cult favorite guitarist Eric Johnson -- who clearly had some supporters in the crowd -- slowed things down with "Burning of the Midnight Lamp" before bringing Zappa back out for deeper cut "Little Miss Lover" to the accompanying photos of Hendrix and, um, some lady friends. The pair also raged through "Love or Confusion," which Zappa called "the most psychedelic song ever written."

Robby Krieger of the Doors and Cesar Rosas and David Hidalgo of Los Lobos were next up with a number of tunes, including a meaty "Hey Joe" (Hendrix's cover version was his first hit). But the game was anted-up considerably with the next power duo of funk bass legends Bootsy Collins (in an incredible shiny rainbow suit and top hat) and sacred steel king Robert Randolph.

Their funked-up cover of "Foxy Lady" - with Gales back out on vocals and his lady friend bumping and grinding appreciatively behind the stage - was perhaps the evening's highlight song. And their "Purple Haze," of course, got perhaps the best audience response of the evening.

If the show had one standout performer, though, that title went to Jonny Lang. Though it's easy to get the seemingly endless crowd of thin, white, dirty blond blues rock guitar players confused (Lang, Johnson, Kenny Wayne Shepherd, Derek Trucks...the list goes on) it was Lang -- accompanied by Aerosmith's Brad Whitford -- who best embodied the physical passion of Jimi Hendrix.

In versions of "Fire," "Like a Rolling Stone" and "Spanish Castle Magic" the faux-hawk sporting Lang seemed at one with the instrument like...well...a big extension of his dick (and really, isn't that what a guitar is?) alternately handling it with aggression, tenderness, and literally as a weapon of music. It was quite something to watch, and the fire was not fake.

After that, Kenny Wayne Shepherd and his vocalist, Noah Hunt, mounted the stage for a string of tunes including "I Don't Love Today," "Let the Good Times Roll," and fan favorite "Voodoo Chile."

And while the duo impressed mightily with their regular band opening up for Joe Walsh recently in Houston, this turn was actually a bit of a letdown. It was heavy on the noodling and lower on the pyrotechnics that suffered in comparison after Lang. The skill was there, but the set needed that little something extra.

Most of the musicians returned to the stage for the bluesy "Red House" before taking a final bow. There was a collective letdown in the audience, though, who were waiting for the expected appearance of show closer (and a huge influence on Jimi Hendrix), Buddy Guy.

The 75-year-old Guy was and is the direct link between the wild bluesmen of the Chess Records era and Jimi's own brand of blues-based rock, but for some reason not announced, Guy was not on the Houston date, though Arena Theatre employees passed out flyers for an upcoming Guy/Lang show there in June.

Taj Mahal and Keb' Mo', also listed on the tour's site, similarly were not in Houston, but Guy's presence and gravitas was missed the most.

And after close to 200 minutes of nonstop music, jams, and nearly 20 performers, a special "Iron Man" award needs to go to Chris Layton. The former drummer for Stevie Ray Vaughan's Double Trouble and the Arc Angels was the only musician on stage all night long, playing every song, and in an incredibly physically demanding role. Way to go, Whipper!

Personal Bias: Hey, it's Jimi Hendrix music! But it was interesting to see so many different takes - and musical journeys into the song's nooks and crannies - that the format called for.

The Crowd: While there were more blacks on stage than in the audience - a dichotomy that vexed Hendrix himself in his day - the mostly Baby Boomers and some fortysomethings were enthusiastic and involved. Except for the twentysomething Hispanic dude next to me who actually fell asleep at one point.

Random Notebook Dump: Why does every classic rock show now comes with its own middle aged fat white guy -- usually in a button-down long-sleeve blue shirt -- having his "go wild" moment where he stands up to show his enthusiasm, turns to those around him, and makes the arm motions up and down to exhort them to stand up too? "Come on, let's ROCK!"

Overheard in the Crowd: "Shit! Where's Buddy Guy?"

Follow Rocks Off on Facebook and on Twitter at @HPRocksOff.

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