Nov 19 2021
By Dave Thompson.
New York had never seemed so unforgiving.
At the beginning of November, The Jimi Hendrix Experience was thrown out of the St. Moritz Hotel, presumably for being longhaired musicians. Three weeks later, they weren’t even allowed into the Hilton Hotel in Rockefeller Center and, in between times, the most prestigious show on the band’s latest run through the United States had encountered a very unexpected problem.
It was Thanksgiving, and the group had been invited to play New York’s Philharmonic Hall; the first rock band ever to be admitted into those hallowed grounds. Bob Dylan’s famous show there on Halloween, 1964, of course, occurred while he was still an acoustic folky. The biggest events to enter the Hall in 1968 were the premiere of Howard Hanson’s Sixth Symphony on February 29, and Roger Sessions’ Eighth, on May 2.
It was indeed a sign of the esteem The Experience held, that the Philharmonic Hall officials even considered allowing them to tread their precious boards. What was even more remarkable, was that the venue’s traditionally conservative patrons barely batted an eye when the announcement was made.
After all, Jimi’s guitar playing was readily described as a one-man orchestration of sorts, and it wasn’t only his musical peers that valued his accomplishments. American guitar sales reached an all-time high of $130 million in 1968, largely attributed to Jimi’s example and influence. Therefore, the Philharmonic Hall engagement was well deserved.
The only condition of acceptance was that one member of the trio had to prove the band’s virtuoso reputation by appearing first in a more traditional symphonic role. It was a small price to pay, and one which, in years to come, any number of rock ‘n’ rollers would have been thrilled to accept. A year before, Britain’s Moody Blues had joined with an entire orchestra to record what would become one of the best-selling records of the year, “Nights In White Satin,” from the Days Of Future Passed concept album. Keith Emerson’s Nice was regularly fusing classical themes with rock ‘n’ roll disciplines, while Deep Purple’s Jon Lord was already planning the sprawling “Gemini Suite” and “Concerto For Group And Orchestra,” full-length works in which traditional musical boundaries would be blurred beyond all recognition.
But Jimi gave the request a moment’s thought, then turned it down. So did Experience bassist Noel Redding. That left drummer Mitch Mitchell, and if he said no, then who knew what would happen? Fortunately, he was made of more courageous stuff than his bandmates. “Jimi and Noel flatly refused, so I thought, ‘okay, what the hell, I’ll do it,'” Mitch recollected.
“[Leonard Bernstein] suggested that I might like to play percussion with the New York Brass Ensemble. So I went on with them with a collar and tie on. It was fine.”~ Mitch Mitchell
But what would he be doing? That decision was up to Leonard Bernstein, the Philharmonic orchestra’s 50-year-old director and spiritual father; a man who had already shown himself to be less than favorable towards rock ‘n’ roll when he lashed out against The Nice’s recent [and admittedly inflammatory) reworking of his own “America.”
To Mitch, however, Bernstein was charm itself, and the two parted company in total agreement. They had met for tea and simply talked music; Bernstein gently probing the depths of the drummer’s personal taste and experience, learning of his days with the R&B inflected Georgie Fame & The Blue Flames, and then delivering his opinion. “He suggested that I might like to play percussion with the New York Brass Ensemble,” Mitch recalled. “So, I went on with them with a collar and tie on. It was fine.”
Now known as Avery Fisher Hall (the name changed in 1973], and part of the Lincoln Center complex, Philharmonic Hall opened in 1962 to the enthusiastic support of New York’s concertgoers, but less than unbridled approbation from the city’s performers. A peculiarly breadbox-shaped building, Philharmonic Hall boasted some of the most eccentric sonics on the classical circuit. The building’s designer, Max Abramovitz, dispensed with many of the acoustic niceties that older theaters had long since come to rely upon—everything from a curved baffle behind the orchestra to leather upholstery.
Such omissions, of course, were unlikely to hamper The Experience. After all, two years of playing everywhere from the smallest club to the largest concrete bunker had inured band and audience alike to the more subtle sensitivities of sound projection. Even so, it was obvious from the outset that this was not going to be just another gig.
Although their Fall live schedule was far more relaxed than earlier in the year, The Experience had been gigging across the Midwest and East Coast since the beginning of November with the highly regarded Cat Mother& The All-Night Newsboys filling the regular support slot. New York, however, was to abrogate that band’s services, as the Philharmonic Hall recruited its own, more characteristic artists to open the two shows. The late harpsichord player, Fernando Valenti, would join Robert Nagel’s New York Brass Ensemble, with guest percussionist Mitch Mitchell, on the bill.
Valenti was a fascinating, and possibly a deliberately wry, addition to the bill. Just as many “traditional” guitar buffs had once recoiled at Jimi’s revolutionary approach to his instrument, so Valenti, too, had critics aplenty: one reviewer commented dourly on his tendency to mess with tempos; another remarked upon his refusal to utilize “dithyrambic rubatissimo.”
His students included modern day harpsichord virtuoso Joseph Payne, and Barbara Day Turner, now founder and music director of San Jose Chamber Orchestra; his recordings had involved him with everyone from Stokowski to Vincent Persichetti. In later years, Valenti would write one of the key studies of Bach, A Performer’s Guide to the Keyboard Partitas of J.S. Bach. Maybe he would never receive the same seal of rollicking approval as Virgil Fox (who took classical organ to the Fillmore West, then bathed the classics in strobe lights and dry ice], but Valenti’s performance at the Philharmonic Hall’s “Electronic Thanksgiving” would open just as many ears.
The Experience had returned from doing three shows in Florida to New York earlier in the week, checking into the Penn Garden Hotel after the Hilton refused to accept them. The hotel would become their base for the remainder of their time in town (and out of town as well]. On November 27, Jimi’s 26th birthday, The Experience shot off to Providence, R.I., for a show at the Rhode Island Auditorium; then it was back to the Big Apple for a birthday celebration at the Café A Go Go in Greenwich Village with the Philharmonic show the following evening.
Electric Ladyland, The Experience’s long-awaited third album, had been in the stores for over two months, but it had yet to make an impact on the group’s live set, much to the amazement of fans for whom great swathes of the two-record set were already established favorites. Instead, the show continued to draw from the same stock of old faithfuls that had been the band’s concert repertoire for more than a year now, a consequence of the backbreaking, grueling schedule they’d been forced to maintain for so long. There simply wasn’t the time to rehearse properly.
Just one “new” song had bee, broken in, the slow blues “Hear My Train A Comin’” [aka “Getting My Hear Back Together Again”] but even that had been in Jimi’s repertoire for over a year. (The Experience would finally record it in early 1969 during the sessions for their incomplete fourth album).
At the Philharmonic Hall, the song would squeeze “Voodoo Child (Slight Return)” out of the running during the first show; leaving the band with a set similar to one they might have been performing a full twelve months before. While there were certainly other factors weighing on the band members’ minds as well, less than 24 hours after the Philharmonic Hall show, Noel would admit (to Eye magazine’s Donna Lawson) that he was fed up with being a sideman. This enforced stagnation was as much to blame as anything else for the eventual disintegration of The Jimi Hendrix Experience.
The Philharmonic Hall show promised to be anything but stagnant. All three tiers of the exquisitely comfortable theater were packed, with a 2,800 strong audience that was more than happy to simply sit back and listen.
The Philharmonic Hall show, conversely, promised to be anything but stagnant. All three tiers of the exquisitely comfortable theater were packed, with a 2,800 strong audience that was more than happy to simply sit back and listen as Fernando Valenti ran through his paces—secure in the knowledge, of course, that there would be ample opportunity to go wild later on.
Mitch’s collar and tie-clad appearance with the New York Brass Ensemble came next, and his delicate handling of Bach and Mozart certainly came as something of an eye-opener to fans who had previously only seen him bathed in sweat as The Experience blazed.
The Ensemble took the applause and bellowing in their stride, thanked Mitch with becoming sincerity for his brief sojourn within their ranks, and then cleared the stage in readiness for the man with the guitar.
It was Thanksgiving, and that was precisely what New York City was doing: giving thanks for the return of its most prodigal son, a mere two years after he had departed in total obscurity. The fact that it was also [a day after] Jimi’s first birthday back in the US since 1965 only added to the festive atmosphere. Backstage, there was even a cake waiting and a photographer ready to catch the birthday boy as he cut it. Celebrating two birthdays in one year—being a superstar really did have a lot in its favor.
And then everything went pear-shaped. Across the board, from the audience afterwards, to seasoned tape traders, everyone is unanimous in describing the “Electronic Thanksgiving” show amongst the poorest shows The Experience ever played. Jimi’s playing was sluggish and uninspired, and while Mitch and Noel did their best to keep things moving, the very nature of The Experience dictated that it was Jimi alone who set the pace. If he was feeling down, the music could not help but follow.
The Experience performed two show that night with the first starting with an opening “Fire” and “I Don’t Live Today,” a meandering, nearly nine minutes of “Hear My Train A Comin’,” “Spanish Castle Magic” and “Foxey Lady,” a “Red House” that never got out of the basement, and The Cream tribute “Sunshine Of Your Love,” before the show ended with an almost relieved sounding “Purple Haze.”
Details of the second show remain murky, but first-hand reports have indicated the show included “Are You Experienced?” “Spanish Castle Magic,” “Tax Free,” “All Along The Watchtower,” “Red House,” “I Don’t Live Today” and “Voodoo Child (Slight Return).”
And though they played for a little over two hours that night—leaving the foundations of Philharmonic Hall ringing with the noise—when The Experience exited the stage, nobody doubted that they would not be returning.
But if the “Electronic Thanksgiving” can be filed away as “just another latter-day Experience gig,” as so many biographies and chronologies seem to prefer, still it remains a crucial moment in New York’s rock ‘n’ roll chronology.
In terms of crowd behavior—and so many other non-musical factors – the gig was a glowing success, so glowing that never again would the doors of the Philharmonic Hall be locked and barred against longhaired youngsters with electric guitars. Drawing upon its dealings with The Experience, the venerable institution now embraced the music with a passion, establishing itself as one of the most prestigious stops on the entire American concert circuit.
Jimi, however, would never grace its stage again. His next big New York City show in May 1969, would see him packing Madison Square Garden; and after that, of course, it would be the Fillmore East. New York could still be an unforgiving city, but there, at least, he was on home ground.
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