All these performances are fine, but they’re largely fan-only versions.
Dead men may tell no tales, but that doesn’t mean they’ve run out of things to say. When Jimi Hendrix died, he left a stack of unreleased material behind that, even in the last decade alone, has turned into as many releases as he put out in his career. Both Sides of the Sky marks the third (and ostensibly final) album in this stretch to properly curate and release Hendrix’s studio recordings. Most artists – particularly those who die in their prime – probably have similar vaults, but Hendrix’s remain intriguing because they hint at what was to come, with shifts in interest and line-ups and all the what ifs of an abrupt ending. This set of tracks recorded between 1968 and 1970 shows an artist in the midst of figuring out his next move, and, as such, the songs offer Hendrix fans a strong set of mostly previously unreleased recordings, but it’s clear why they were unreleased at the time.
Hendrix’s skill has never been in question. The tracks here aren’t flubbed takes or rocky demos, but they don’t match his original releases. “Cherokee Mist” closes the album as a seven-minute jam with just Hendrix and drummer Mitch Mitchell. Hendrix plays both guitar and electric sitar. He searches for something new, but the track wanders before petering out. Recordings of this piece hint at something new Hendrix was moving toward, and while it may be a tease of what would have been a fourth album, the thinking out loud nature of the piece doesn’t offer much more than a historical glimpse.
Other tracks fare better. The Band of Gypsys lineup accounts for a good chunk of the disc and offer an alternative vision to the “Cherokee Mist” idea. If Hendrix had developed a strong sense of psychedelia, Billy Cox and Buddy Miles anchored him to a sturdier sort of funk rock. The trio’s “Power of Soul” reveals their intention to stretch that format into something more complicated. The uptempo “Mannish Boy” and “Lover Man” primarily serve to unleash Hendrix on steady blues-rock.
On other tracks, Hendrix steps to the background, as when he plays bass on Stephen Stills’ “Woodstock” or his more distinctive guitar on that artist’s “$20 Fine.” On “Things I Used to Do,” he largely yields to the playing of Johnny Winter. “Georgia Blues” reunites him with vocalist/saxophonist Lonnie Youngblood. All these performances are fine, but they’re largely fan-only versions.
The producers of Both Sides of the Sky deserve credit for presenting these recordings, for the most part, as they exist; there’s no tinkering (other than cleaning up the sound) and no attempt at claiming the grounds for a new album, etc. They’re true to the goal of simply releasing the best material we haven’t heard. However, the collection could have used some more curating, possibly by listing the tracks in chronological order. Separating the Stills numbers, which were recorded at the same session, makes no sense. Many of these songs exist in some other form, so these posthumous discs could do more than present alternate takes: they could help shape a narrative, highlight one aspect of Hendrix’s work, etc. For example, placing “Cherokee Mist” last suggests that Hendrix was moving toward this sound. Instead, that recording comes from 1968, the earliest session on the disc. It’s more interesting to consider that Hendrix was moving away from that sort of jam and into expanding the limits of the sort of music he, Cox and Miles were working on. This set puts the music into too scattershot a form, regardless of how good the recordings are (and they’re mostly quite good).
Hendrix fans will appreciate this release simply for the additional tracks. Casual fans probably don’t need more versions of some of these tracks. Anyone looking for deeper insight into Hendrix’s late era (essentially after the Electric Ladyland sessions) will have to put more of the pieces together themselves. Just as a listening experience, the album’s unsurprisingly good, but it does start to suggest that the reason that dead men tell no tales might simply be that they run out of things to say.