1969 was an incredible and historic year for rock and roll, for many reasons. For one, it was a year of many music festivals, large concerts held outdoors played by multiple artists. Hendrix played at several of these festivals, but most notably at Woodstock in August. This gathering of the tribes has certainly been chronicled as one of the largest concerts in history, but also as the grand finale for the hippie, free love, and peace movement. In December, the ill-fated Altamont Free Concert put the nail into the coffin of the counterculture with the Stones accompanying mayhem and murder in a complete reversal of the Woodstock experience. How symbolic and ironic it was then that Hendrix was the last performer at the last great festival, and that within a little over a year he would be dead at 27.
By the time the date for the 3-day festival rolled around, things were falling apart for him – Noel Redding, bass player for the Experience from the start, had left the group, and Hendrix had decided to add a rhythm guitar player and a percussionist to the ensemble, with his old friend Billy Cox playing bass and the only remaining original Experience member Mitch Mitchell on drums. The new lineup – introduced by Hendrix as the Band of Gypsys – rehearsed at a rented house near the festival site for a couple of weeks prior, and Mitchell reported that the group never really jelled.
The story of Hendrix’ Woodstock appearance starts with his request to end the festival by being the last performer and closing the festival on Sunday night. He was in many ways the big draw, and he was getting paid more than any other act, so his wish was granted. But by the time he actually went on stage, the schedule was in such disarray that it was 8:30 Monday morning and most of the half-million people who had been there were gone – it’s estimated that there were 40,000 concert goers left when he started playing, and many of them headed for the highway after getting a glimpse of Hendrix. All of this was apparently fine with him – he disliked large audiences, and he had supposedly been up for 3 days and was running on adrenaline and other artificial aids.
The actual show was filmed that morning, and is now available in its entirety on DVD, and the audio portion has been released as an album. It was 2 hours long, his longest ever live set, and the highlight was, of course, his rendition of the Star-Spangled Banner, Hendrix-style. He had played this before so it wasn’t a debut, but the combination of raw nerves and a feeling of finality gave the piece an extra aura of intensity. For almost 4 minutes Hendrix made the old standby a new experience, and it has rightfully taken its place as one of the greatest moments in rock and Jimi Hendrix history. He did the last song and said goodbye, having played a show that would become legendary after Jimi Hendrix’ death at 27 a year later.
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