Music vet and New Times scribe Lee Zimmerman offers his insights, opinions, and observations about the local scene. This week: South Florida's first festival and a memorable moment with Jimi Hendrix.
In May 1968, South Florida had very little to boast about when it came to placing its imprint on the national music scene. The Beatles made their bow outside New York City when they appeared on the Ed Sullivan Show in a telecast from Miami Beach, and Criteria Studios had already begun its run of notable R&B hits (James Brown recorded his signature song "I Got You (I Feel Good)" there in 1965), but for the most part, our environs were a kind of musical nowhere land that few in the business ever thought about twice.
That made the first Miami Pop Festival, which took place over two days, May 18 and 19, all that more auspicious. Though many may think of it as footnote in rock's larger trajectory, it was in fact a critical lynchpin between the two festivals that would eventually overshadow it: Monterey Pop, held 11 months before, and Woodstock, which awaited 15 months later.
For the record, the Miami Pop Festival didn't take place in Miami at all. It didn't even take place in Miami-Dade County. The setting was Gulfstream Park in Hallandale, then -- and now -- a racetrack that hosts concerts sporadically, in addition to its primary calling as a horseracing venue. It also holds a connection to the aforementioned festivals. Michael Lang, a young native New Yorker who relocated to Coconut Grove in 1966 to open a head shop, attended Monterey Pop and was so inspired by the idea of a multiday, multiact musical event, that he decided to attempt to organize one himself. The result of that decision was manifest in the first Miami Pop festival and, seven months later, a much larger gathering held in the same locale. Satisfied with the results, Lang would go down in rock history as the man who help organize Woodstock, the festival that still serves as a blueprint for every festival since.
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But there was also another connection, one that was at least as significant. As it turned out, Jimi Hendrix performed at all three. The man who lit his guitar on fire at Monterey and closed out the three days of Woodstock with a sunrise performance was also the biggest star at the first Miami Pop, and the artist who made that provided the promoter with his main draw. There were other heavyweights there as well -- Frank Zappa and the Mothers of Invention, Steppenwolf, Blue Cheer, John Lee Hooker, and Arthur Brown -- but the Jimi Hendrix Experience was clearly the most formidable act on the bill and the one act that ensured its success.
More than 40 years after his untimely passing, fascination with Hendrix continues unabated. Arguably the most innovative guitarist of all time, his four short years in the spotlight left an indelible legacy that's lingered ever since.
So even with the endless stream of reissues and repackaging, new Hendrix releases still reap unceasing fascination. A new album, Jimi Hendrix Experience: Miami Pop Festival, is especially significant, however, because it provides the first audio documentation of those two days in May. Together with Jimi Hendrix: Hear My Train A Comin', an expanded home video that originally aired on PBS' American Masters, it documents a crucial performance that many fans and aficionados may never have even known existed.
Although the band's set list is drawn mostly from the Experience's first album, a pair of jams -- "Tax Free" and "Hear My Train A Comin'" -- mark their stage debut. Needless to say, Hendrix is as explosive as ever, but Mitch Mitchell shines as well, affirming his status as a drumming dynamo. Indeed, despite the somewhat crude technology -- Noel Redding's bass and backing vocals are muted considerably -- these recordings are a revelation. The scenes shown in the documentary are equally revelatory, thanks to the historical footage of the festival that's heretofore unseen.
For the record, I was fortunate enough to see Hendrix perform with the Experience when I lived in Dallas, Texas. The opening act on the bill was a new band that called themselves Chicago Transit Authority before later changing their name to simply Chicago. I remember the show fairly well, especially the part in "Purple Haze" when Hendrix modified the lyric slightly and admonished the audience to "'scuse me while I kiss this guy!" For years after, I had a pair of glossy photos that a friend of mine took of the show hanging on my bedroom wall. Sadly, they're long gone now, but my memories linger.
And now, with these two releases, the memories of those who were at Gulfstream on that May day will linger as well.
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