On May 23, 1969, Jimi Hendrix (1942-1970) makes his third concert appearance in Seattle since becoming a rock star during 1967's "Summer of Love." His first two albums, Are You Experienced and Axis: Bold As Love, have been popular and critical successes, his performance at the Monterey International Pop Festival in June 1967 had blown minds, and tours with his band the Jimi Hendrix Experience have established Hendrix as a blazing star. Additional major milestones for the band -- including bassist Noel Redding (1945-2003) and drummer Mitch Mitchell (1946-2008) -- lay just ahead.
The Seattle appearance by the Jim Hendrix Experience was part of a tour organized by Seattle's Concerts West company that included about 25 dates and begain in Raleigh, North Carolina, on April 11, 1969. Traveling along with Hendrix as the opening act was a new band called Fat Mattress, a side project for Hendrix bassist Noel Redding.
Redding had founded the folk-rock band in his hometown of Folkestone, England. The idea was that he could play guitar, sing, and front the band. But Fat Mattress was at an obvious disadvantage, opening for one of the greatest bands alive. The prime exposure was nice, but it opened up Fat Mattress to direct comparison to the headliner, and critics found it easy to contrast the quality of the two acts. Such was the case on May 23, 1969, when Fat Mattress opened at the Coliseum.
The Seattle-Post Intelligencer review the following day noted: "The Fat Mattress wasn't particularly outstanding. They are a loud hard rock group and Red's lead guitar playing isn't as good as his bass support with Hendrix. The audience never got very turned on by the Fat Mattress" ("Jimi's Wa-Wa ..."). Fat Mattress' eponymous 1969 album failed in the marketplace, and the lack of demand caused the band's subsequent headlining tour of 30 dates to be cancelled after five shows.
A Flash Mob
With thunder and lightning crashing outside, the Jimi Hendrix Experience followed Fat Mattress to the Coliseum stage, and Seattle's hometown hero was up to the task. "Hendrix opened the show by asking the audience to forget about yesterday, forget about tomorrow and try to build a world right then, in the Coliseum, with the music. He also dedicated the show to his family and to Garfield [High School]," wrote Post-Intelligencer music critic Bruce Buls. "Then, as an afternote, he asked the audience not to flash any flashbulbs because they disturbed his concentration" ("Jimi's Wa-Wa ..."). Wrote Buls:
"The minute he started playing, the flashbulbs started going off like firecrackers. It suddenly seemed like the place was filled with ghouls, all armed with a million flashcubes. It was incredible. It was insulting. But apparently the flashbulbs didn't bother Hendrix as much as it did me, because when he launched into 'Foxy Lady,' it was Hendrix good as ever. He played both old and new numbers, but it was the old stuff that seemed to go over the best ... During all these songs, Hendrix proved once again that no one can play ... a guitar as he can. When he gets that white wa-wa guitar between his legs and he's swaying back and forth and the music is coming out in heavy waves and even the flashcubers are caught up in it, it's a unique experience" ("Jimi's Wa-Wa ...").
The set list of old and new tunes performed for estimated crowd of 10,000 included:
- "Come On (Part 1)"
- "Hear My Train a Comin'"
- "Foxy Lady"
- "Red House"
- "I Don't Live Today"
- "Purple Haze"
- "Voodoo Child (Slight Return)"
Are You Experienced?
The music critic for The Seattle Times seemed to have mixed feelings about the show, giving Hendrix a grade of "qualified 'great.'" And that was because "his music will definitely not appeal to everyone. The listener must enjoy loud, violent blues with simple lyrics, accompanied by intricately constructed instrumental lines alternated with piercing electronic shrieks and squawks ... Hendrix proved to be not only a virtuoso blues guitarist, but an excellent showman" ("Jimi Hendrix Show ...").
Hendrix, wrote Times critic Janine Gressel, had "established an immediate rapport with the crowd. He had something meaningful to say before each song, and said it as lucidly as any trained speaker" ("Jimi Hendrix Show ..."). Regarding his blues-based numbers, "His were not the 'down and out, poor me, what's the use' style of self-pitying lament. His music may have been angry and full of protest, but it had dignity. His songs never whimpered at injustice; they were forcefully indignant and demanded respect and empathy from the audience. Hendrix' straight-forward lyrics were powerful, but his playing was even more so ... The Jimi Hendrix Experience is well named. The act is one that must be seen to be appreciated. To feel the impact fully, The Experience must be experienced" ("Jimi Hendrix Show ...").
The Summer of '69
The Jimi Hendrix Experience had blown the roof off the joint, and Hendrix was amped up. He had come to Seattle from New York with a girlfriend, Carmen Borrero, and they had checked into the Sherwood Inn at 400 NE 45th Street in the University District. But now, before heading back to their room, Hendrix wanted to show Borrero around his hometown. He asked a kid who had just asked for his autograph backstage if he had a car and could drive them around. The shocked fan agreed, and they dashed through the rain and jumped into his Volkswagen Beetle. For the next two hours Hendrix led a guided tour, showing Borrero the business strip up Jackson Street, several of his boyhood homes and boarding houses in the Central District, Garfield High School, and the former site of the Birdland dancehall on East Madison Street, where his teenage bands had played.
The Jimi Hendrix Experience left the next morning to continue its tour into California, Hawaii, and Colorado. Meanwhile, the band's Smash Hits album was released in the U.S. on July 30, 1969. But then discord within the band caused Redding to quit. Hendrix and Mitchell began jamming with a new cast of musicians who came to be called Gypsy Sun & Rainbows. On August 18, 1969, the summer was capped by the band's immortal performance at the Woodstock Festival at Bethel, New York. A year later, on July 26, 1970, a reconstituted Jimi Hendrix Experience would return for one final Seattle show at Sicks' Stadium.