When it came to my evaluation of this set, I ran into a dilemma: what should I consider to be the main component and what are the extras? I decided that the album itself forms the meat of the package and the other CDs and the Blu-ray act as supplements.
This led to an odd reviewing issue since I didn’t discuss these elements in the body of the review but I now need to chat about their quality. Stuck in this circumstance, I decided that I’d only grade the picture and sound quality of the package’s documentary.
But first, I need to actually discuss the program’s content. Taken from the Classic Albums series, At Last… The Beginning: The Making of Electric Ladyland runs one hour, 26 minutes, 52 seconds and provides the usual mix of archival materials and interviews.
In the latter domain, we get comments from engineer Eddie Kramer, Jimi Hendrix Experience members Noel Redding and Mitch Mitchell, manager Chas Chandler, Record Plant co-owner Chris Stone, tour manager Gerry Stickells, drummer Buddy Miles, guitarist Dave Mason, Hendrix’s friend Velvert Turner, Hendrix Management associate Trixie Sullivan, roadie Neville Chesters, Miami Pop Festival promoter Michael Lang, Hammond organ players Steve Winwood and Mike Finnigan, Scene Club Maitre D’ Jim Marron, bassist Jack Casady, photographer David Montgomery, Track Records co-founder Chris Stamp, and arranger Larry Fallon.
Like other Classic Albums entries, this one offers breakdowns from original tapes as well as some instrumental demos by the musicians. We also find occasional glimpses of Hendrix performances, but the emphasis remains on the interviews and the demonstrations of musical elements.
As usual, these become the best parts of the show. I love the parts at the mixing board that isolate different aspects of the songs, so those shine.
The interviews work well, especially because the program includes virtually all the main players involved with Ladyland other than Hendrix, of course, though we do get a few archival comments from Jimi. They shed a lot of light on the album’s creation.
My only complaint comes from the show’s disjointed nature, as it hops from one topic to another without much logic. Still, even with that flaw, the program becomes a fine examination of the album and the era.
The Beginning came to us in its original 1.33:1 aspect ratio, and frankly, it looked pretty bad. Shot on video, the program offered inconsistent delineation, as even the modern-day interviews appeared somewhat soft and imprecise.
Mild jaggies and shimmering occurred, but I saw no edge haloes or source flaws. Colors seemed heavy and a bit messy, while blacks felt too dense and shadows were thick. This wasn’t a terrible image given its roots, but it didn’t offer appealing visuals.
As for the documentary’s PCM stereo soundtrack, it worked fine for the show’s limited aspirations. The side channels gave us music from the album, and they showed appealing stereo presence. The mixing board breakdowns also used the stereo imaging well.
The rest of the program stayed with monaural information, mainly because it concentrated on dialogue. The interviews stayed focused on the center, which made sense.
Audio quality seemed fine, as the music showed tight highs and positive lows. Speech was concise and natural. Nothing about the track impressed, but it did what it needed to do.
The Blu-ray also includes a 5.1 surround mix of Ladyland. In terms of the soundscape, tt's aggressive but not "stupid aggressive", so it maintains a forward balance that uses good localization for instruments but it also works the surrounds to pretty good effect.
Unsurprisingly, this becomes most noticeable during the "trippy" songs like "1983" but the more straightforward tracks also broaden to the rear speakers in a fairly active manner.
It seems like a good sonic compromise to me. I think the mix uses all five channels actively enough to satisfy the surround enthusiasts, but it doesn't become over the top or so exaggerated that it becomes a distraction.
With one possible exception: lead vocals. 99 percent of the time, I want lead vocals to stay front and center, whereas these tend to be a bit looser.
Jimi's lead vocals still come from the front most of the time, but they blend with the surrounds a little more often than I'd like. It's not a real distraction, but I'd still prefer a more front/center choice for the leads.
Plenty of backup vocals come from the surrounds, and that's fine with me.
Overall, I think this feels like an appropriate mix for the material. I don't know if it'd be my go-to for the album, but other than the occasional spread of the lead vocals, I think it works.
The package includes two additional CDs as well. The Early Takes includes 20 tracks, the first 12 of which offer largely solo demos. Jimi gets some accompaniment at times – like harmonica for “Somewhere” – but these remain simple versions.
The other eight tracks go for full band treatment of the songs, but they still give us demos, so don’t expect particularly well-rendered versions. The tunes clearly remained “works in progress”.
I suspect fans will enjoy this material, but I don’t quite dig Hendrix enough to get a lot from the demos. Admittedly, I’m not a huge fan of acoustic/solo demos from anyone, so they’re usually a tough sell. Add to that my less than enthusiastic affection for Hendrix and “Takes” leaves me a little cold.
For those with an affection for this sort of material, though, the “Takes” become more important. They offer a glimpse of the creative process and I think fans will like them.
The second CD presents the Jimi Hendrix Experience Live at the Hollywood Bowl. Recorded September 14, 1968, the show includes 11 songs, only one of which comes from not-yet-released Ladyland: “Voodoo Child (Slight Return)”.
The remainder stem from the Experience’s prior two albums. We also get an instrumental cover of Cream’s “Sunshine of Your Love” as well as “The Star-Spangled Banner”.
The tape runs out during “Foxey Lady” and picks up toward end of “Fire”, so we hear very little of the latter song. The recording also ends abruptly, though I don’t think we miss much of set-closing “Purple Haze”, as it seems to be nearly over anyway.
In theory, a mostly full concert from 1968 seems like an appealing option. In reality, it doesn’t work out so well.
Sound quality becomes the main issue. According to the package’s liner notes, the tape came “surreptitiously” from the soundboard. We get a monaural recording that essentially offers bootleg-level audio.
In general, the recording comes across as rough and distorted. Some songs seem more listenable than others, but it’s still a clearly flawed recording.
The quality issues might matter less if Bowl offered an incendiary performance, but honestly, the band didn’t really seem “on” that night. Jimi goes out of tune a lot, and the whole thing feels energetic but not especially compelling in a musical sense. It’s a show I expect fans will play once but not revisit much.
The set concludes with a booklet. Bound into the packaging, it mixes photos, archival materials and text components.
In the latter domain, we find a David Fricke essay about Ladyland as well as notes about the documentary and the bonus CDs. The booklet adds a lot of useful information.
50 years after its release, the Jimi Hendrix Experience’s Electric Ladyland remains a classic. Although I can’t claim to love Hendrix’s work, I understand the album’s appeal and think it offers a quality affair. The Blu-ray brings a documentary with mediocre picture and good audio, while the set benefits from supplements that vary in quality, though the 5.1 mix of the main album works nicely. While it comes with ups and downs, most of this set satisfies.