(This article originally appeared on weta.org, a Washington, D.C., PBS affiliate, as part of a series on local history.)
The PBS American Masters series documentary Jimi Hendrix: Hear My Train A Comin’ includes never-before-aired film footage of a live Hendrix performance at the 1968 Miami Pop Festival, as well as a poignant clip of his final performance in Germany in September 1970, just 12 days before his death at age 27.
Unfortunately, rock music archivists have yet to discover any film record of the famed guitarist’s three performances in the Washington, D.C. area in 1967 and 1968, which have become the stuff of local legend. (Listen to Hendrix singing Hey Joe below.)
Hendrix’s D.C. debut was on Aug. 9-13, 1967 at the long-defunct Ambassador Theater in the Adams Morgan neighborhood. The guitarist and his band, the Jimi Hendrix Experience, had just endured a brief stint as the opening act for The Monkees and were scrambling to find gigs.
They played five shows at the Ambassador, including an Aug. 10 appearance at a free afternoon youth festival. The Washington Post’s story on that event barely mentioned Hendrix, focusing instead on the audience’s odd, incongruous mix of children — some as young as 5 — and hippies who’d come to groove to the club’s pulsating psychedelic light show. “I think it’s dynamite,” one teenager told the newspaper. “They ought to give the hippies more of a chance to do this sort of thing. They’re all right.”
When Hendrix announced his first number would be a cover of Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band, Lofgren and his friends were puzzled.
A Magical Guitarist
One of the fans at Hendrix’s Aug. 13 performance was a then-teenaged Nils Lofgren, a future guitarist for Bruce Springsteen’s E Street Band, who rushed over to the Ambassador after attending a concert by The Who at Constitution Hall.
In a 1995 interview with a Hendrix fanzine, Lofgren recalled that he also spotted The Who’s Pete Townsend in the audience. “Hendrix came out, and none of us really knew anything about him apart from he was supposed to be this magical guitarist,” Lofgren said.Beatles had created in the studio. But they soon discovered Hendrix’s almost preternatural ability to elicit an aural onslaught from his instrument:
“And he had these huge stacks of Marshall amps and, you know, you didn’t really know how loud it was going to be and at the end of the count he literally just disappeared,” Lofgren recalled. “He fell on his, you know, like dropped back with his ass on his heels, guitar between his legs and just kinda went out of vision and the whole audience just leapt up to their feet and he’s down there, you know, bumping and grinding doing Sgt Pepper’s [Lonely] Heart’s Club Band à la Purple Haze you know, that kind of rhythm, a little bit slowed down. And it was just completely mesmerising and overwhelming and inspiring. And I’ve been just hooked ever since.”
A Highly Charged Performance
On March 10, 1968, Hendrix and the Experience returned to D.C. to play two shows at the Washington Hilton’s International Ballroom. The Washington Post’s Jim Hoagland, who reviewed the show, noted that the standing-room-only crowd of 4,000 seemed a bit disappointed that Hendrix didn’t pour lighter fluid on his guitar and burn it, a signature gesture he had performed at the Monterey Pop Festival in 1967.
Even so, Hoagland wrote, Hendrix put on a highly charged performance, exciting the audience with “his wildly sexual gyrations” and technique of “erotically stroking his guitar and grinding it against himself.” Hoagland opined that although Hendrix, in his view, was a “fine guitarist,” his real appeal was as an “anti-suburb, anti-establishment” figure. “He is bad, and teenagers love him for it,” he wrote. “He is more evil than Elvis ever dreamed of being, and the teenagers know that it infuriates their parents.”
Hendrix made one last appearance in the area on Aug. 16, 1968. After appearing on a TV program in Baltimore, the Experience performed at the Merriweather Post Pavillion in Columbia, Md. By one account, after a storm erupted during the performance, Hendrix invited the crowd on the lawn to come under the covered pavilion, and did his best to drown out the thunder with feedback and distortion from his playing. Here’s his rendition of Hey Joe.
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