Sounds in the Key of Purple (Haze)
Seattle vibrates with imitators and innovators at first Jimi Hendrix Electric Guitar Festival
They blared. They blazed. They Purple Hazed. Guitarists from around the country paid tribute last week to Jimi Hendrix, the brilliant stylist whose performances in the late 1960s represented a kind of cosmic Big Bang of innovation in rock guitar.
"There's nothing that he wouldn't try to do," says Glen Lynskey, one of the participants in the first Jimi Hendrix Electric Guitar Festival. More than any of his peers, "he went out on a limb."
The festival was held in Hendrix's hometown of Seattle 25 years after his tragic death (attributed to the effects of sleeping pills and alcohol).
The event brought light and a little heat, too - everything from guitars going up in flames to audience members expressing disappointment over who won a Hendrix-memorial guitar competition.
On Sept. 3, a crowd of 3,000 turned out as eight undiscovered guitarists, including Lynskey, vied in a contest for a $5,000 cash prize and a top-of-the-line Gibson guitar. The winner then joined big-name performers the following night in a Hendrix tribute concert that drew 20,000. The event - in a stadium lit by the moon, the nearby Space Needle, and a sometimes psychedelic light show - was the finale of Seattle's annual Bumbershoot arts festival.
"Jimi stood for the spirit of love, and the spirit of fire and inspiration," said tribute host Narada Michael Walden, a well-known music producer. Before the concert, Jimi's father, Al Hendrix, was crowned king of the event and lit an Olympic-style flame that lapped over an electric guitar throughout much of the concert.
The elder Hendrix has recently won an out-of-court settlement affirming his rights to his son's musical legacy.
The event saw longtime Hendrix fans trying to recapture the lost glory of his shows. Meanwhile, a younger generation - some with Hendrix T-shirts and others with pierced eyebrows or hair in seaweed-green strands - listened with a mix of enthusiasm and apathy to the performers, few of whom possessed anything like Hendrix's stage presence.
But the better performances showed how Hendrix's influence remains a potent source of inspiration for musicians and a delight for fans.
The competition, held on an indoor stage, drew numerous standing ovations from much of the audience as each contestant performed an original-composition solo and a Hendrix tune with bass and drum backup.
Tim Butler of Winnipeg used trademark Hendrix techniques such as playing the instrument with his teeth and from behind his back as he performed the song "Freedom" with a bright-colored scarf wrapped around his forehead. Though he (and the majority of the eight contestants) was white, his vocals and guitar captured something of the Hendrix sound.
Many in the audience saw this performance, and one by Seattle's Omar Torres, as standouts. But, as in Olympic ice dancing, the judges had their own standards.
"I think they wanted to pick someone who didn't sound exactly the same" as Hendrix himself, says Rob Kaufmann, a Hendrix fan who also happens to be from Winnipeg.
"Nine-tenths of the guys here thought Butler's performance was best," asserted Kaufmann, who was part of a small group of Hendrix fans who converged on the festival after hearing about it on the Internet computer network.
"The one who came closest to the actual sound didn't win the competition," agrees Colin Hartridge, a Vancouver, British Columbia, resident who heard Hendrix perform in 1968.
As these listeners suspected, however, sound-alikes were not what the judges wanted. Innovation and talent were at the heart of the judging process, and not all the listeners were displeased with the choice of Jay Roberts, from Issaquah, Wash., as winner.
"I think they picked the best guitarist there," Seattle's Bill Sieg says.
"He was a little more innovative than the other guys," adds Jim Hensperger, a Ketchikan, Alaska, resident in a tie-dyed shirt.
Yet so many people in the crowd disapproved of the judging that boos were as loud as cheers for the winner. "I wouldn't have wanted to have been in the position of picking them," Hensperger says.
One of the few concertgoers who seemed undecided was infant Shae Purdue, who slept through the extravaganza with earplugs.
Placing second in the contest was Gary Vincent of San Luis Obispo, Calif. Lynskey, a Seattle guitarist with freaked-out red hair, won third prize on the strength of an original composition entitled "India Clash."
The only female contestent, Ritsu Katsumata of Portland, Ore., played an electric instrument that looked more like a violin than a guitar, but the sounds that screamed from her bow wowed the judges enough to get her a spot in the finals. More than 150 musicians sent in cassette tapes or videos as initial competition entries.
The second-night tribute began with four paratroopers from the Army's 101st Airborne Division - in which Hendrix served - making pinpoint landings on the stadium field, with a cloud of purple smoke streaming behind each of them.
Then came familiar Hendrix tunes such as "Purple Haze," performed in part by former Hendrix band members Noel Redding and Billy Cox (bassists) and Buddy Miles (drummer).
Among special guests, a highlight was Mike McCready of Pearl Jam, the Seattle band. At the end of his performance he lit his guitar on fire, smashed it Hendrix-style, and passed out pieces to fans standing in the front row.
Later, flashes of lightning added nature's own pyrotechnics to the concert. Some in the crowd roared approvingly, while others left as it began to rain.
The music events were augmented by a temporary museum, the Red House (named after another Hendrix tune). On display were items of the performer's flamboyant clothing and cartoons he drew in his youth.
Aspiring rock musicians take heart: After dropping out of high school and then leaving the Army, Hendrix spent much of the 1960s as a backup musician for various performers, including Little Richard, before making it big.