WORCESTER — With the exception maybe of Elvis Presley, it’s hard to think of another rock star whose legacy has loomed so large and endured quite as vividly as that of Jimi Hendrix. The past few years alone have brought a flurry of box sets, live albums, and re-
issues from the late guitarist, right up to last week’s release of “People, Hell and Angels,” a new album of previously unreleased studio recordings.
As that highly anticipated album gets dissected and reviewed across the world, a local Hendrix admirer is celebrating a smaller discovery.
Joel J. Brattin, an English professor at Worcester Polytechnic Institute, recently came into possession of a soundboard recording of a concert Hendrix gave at Royal Albert Hall on the evening of Feb. 18, 1969.
Backed by the Jimi Hendrix Experience, the iconic lineup that included Noel Redding on bass and Mitch Mitchell on drums, Hendrix played a second date at that legendary music venue in London the following week, but this new soundboard recording is exclusively of the first show. The set list that night ranged from “Hear My Train A-Comin’ ” and “Foxy Lady” to “Spanish Castle Magic” and “Purple Haze,” 10 songs in total spanning just over 87 minutes.
A bootleg of that performance, taped by someone in the audience, has circulated for years among diehard fans, but the soundboard version — which likely was captured professionally through the mixing console — is vastly superior in quality. It’s the difference between a black-and-white movie and one filmed in Technicolor: The solos are crisp, the vocals pop with clarity, and you get a surround-sound sensation.
Brattin is emblematic of a fanbase that has never allowed Hendrix’s legacy to languish. Who would have thought we’d still be talking about a man who died in 1970 at 27?
“I think this [continued interest] is about Hendrix’s work ethic, which is something people did not celebrate in his lifetime,” Brattin says. “They presented him as some kind of drug-crazed hippie. But he just worked all the time.”
In many ways, Brattin is the quintessential Hendrix fanatic. Born in 1956, he essentially came of age as Hendrix was becoming a rock god. His older sisters turned him on to pop and rock bands of the day, and Brattin can remember discovering Hendrix at age 11.
“I was sold on Hendrix from his second album, ‘Axis: Bold as Love.’ I listened to that with headphones and thought, ‘What else is there in the world that can compare to that?’,” he says.
Brattin looks the part of a literature professor who claims Charles Dickens as his specialty: bespectacled, distinguished graying hair, sensible shoes. But beneath his tweed jacket is a glimmer of his other great love. His tie is patterned after the fretboard of a guitar, with his tie bar resembling a capo and placed on what would be the seventh fret.
For a Dickens scholar, Brattin knows his Hendrix better than most. As he plays the soundboard recording for a reporter in a music lab on the WPI campus recently, he can’t contain his excitement. He taps his toes. He mouths the words to the choruses. He smiles knowingly during the solos (“Noel is getting pretty adventurous on the bass there!”). He even points out a moment when Hendrix is seemingly out of synch with his bandmates.
The recording’s origins, however, are shrouded in mystery. Brattin, who at first is so animated and articulate, suddenly gets cagey about the fine print. He got his copy through Caesar Glebbeek, a Dutchman based in Italy who is the founder, editor, and publisher of UniVibes. Brattin, who’s a contributing editor to the academic journal devoted to Hendrix, reviewed the soundboard recording for an in-depth feature in UniVibes.
He skirts the issue of whether the recording is legal.
“What do you mean, legal?” Brattin asks, eyebrows arched, clarifying that he has no intentions of sharing it and certainly does not own any rights to it. If anything, it has become a prized possession, a little piece of Hendrix history that he guards with love and admiration.
“I’m not letting anyone copy it or anything,” he says. “I have a circle of Hendrix friends in the Boston area . . . and I would certainly play it for them. We do exchange CDs and trade stuff, but not this one.”
Why is that?
Eight seconds of silence.
“I think I just don’t want to answer. Is that all right?”
Glebbeek, however, is more forthcoming.
“Where it comes from, to be very honest with you, I do not know,” Glebbeek says on the phone from Italy. “The only thing I know is that it’s probably from an American collector who got it possibly many years ago. It must have originated from somebody who was working on the sound crew [from that performance]. It got around to four or five people who were told not to trade it, and of course it doesn’t work like that.”
Glebbeek says he got his copy from one of those five people who just happens to be a subscriber to UniVibes. Like Brattin, he has no plans to do anything commercially with the recording. He knows better.
“First of all, Experience Hendrix in Seattle owns the rights to anything to do with Hendrix,” Glebbeek says, mentioning that someone from the company, which is owned and operated by members of Hendrix’s family, immediately asked him where the recording had come from. He says no one threatened legal action.
Through a publicist, John McDermott, a Hendrix historian who works closely with the guitarist’s estate and coproduced “People, Hell and Angels,” declined to comment for this story.
Both Glebbeek and Brattin agree that no matter how limited the soundboard recording’s life is — whether it remains hidden away in a music lab in Worcester or played for friends in Italy — its existence is extraordinary in its own right.
“It’s one of the better finds of the last 10 years,” Glebbeek says. “The main thing to say about this recording is the quality is very high. We can hear exactly what’s happening, all the details in the guitar playing when he switches something. In that respect it’s quite an astonishing recording, actually. There were rumors that it existed, but we didn’t know about it until recently.”