Jimi Hendrix’s performance at Woodstock in 1969 is widely hailed as the gig that defined the ’60s. The festival itself became a pivotal moment in popular music history when around 500,000 people flooded Max Yasgur’s dairy farm in Bethel, New York, to watch incredible artists like Janis Joplin and The Grateful Dead. But the organisers knew that one act was bound to draw more attention than any other, a young guitarist known to the world as Jimi Hendrix.
But anyone that knows anything about Woodstock knows that’s nothing went as planned. Being the headline act, Hendrix was the last to perform at the festival. However, because of the delays caused by the rain, he only took the stage at 8:30 Monday morning. The audience had peaked at an estimated 450,000 during the festival but was reduced to about 30,000 by that point. Many attendees waited to catch a glimpse of Hendrix and then left during their set, the thought of their jobs and schools weighing on their minds.
Nevertheless, Hendrix’s performance became part of the ’60s zeitgeist and went down in history almost as soon as it was over. In this rare footage, we see Hendrix perform ‘Purple Haze’ with a newly-formed, temporary band. The Jimi Hendrix Experience, who had recorded three studio albums and stunned crowds around the world, had broken up, so for Woodstock, Hendrix assembled a new group shakily known as Gypsy Suns and Rainbows.
The group included bassist Billy Cox, guitarist Larry Lee (neither of whom had performed in front of large crowds before) and drummer Mitch Mitchell, part of the Experience. With two extra percussionists filling out the sound, the lineup was the biggest Hendrix ever played with. It was also the only group Hendrix played with that included a second guitarist.
The footage captures the simple beauty of that day in 1969. As he burns through ‘Purple Haze’, it’s clear why Hendrix is still regarded as one of the best guitarists of all time. He uses every aspect of his electric guitar to maxmium effect, sliding his hand along the fretboard and wrestling with its wooden body to create a whirring, churning maelstrom of sound. Ahead of him, the audience can be seen twisting to the heat of the music, and behind him, photographers desperately try and capture the energy of his performance in still life.
‘Purple Haze’ was released on March 17, 1967, and was reportedly written in the dressing room of a London club during the afternoon of December 26, 1966, just before a gig. According to drummer Mitch Mitchell, when Hendrix walked into the recording studio to record ‘Purple Haze’, he revealed the song by humming a vague riff: “Hendrix came in and kind of hummed us the riff and showed Noel the chords and the changes. I listened to it, and we went, ‘OK, let’s do it.’ We got it on the third take as I recall.”
Producer Chas Chandler later said: “With ‘Purple Haze’, Hendrix and I were striving for a sound and just kept going back in [to the studio], two hours at a time, trying to achieve it. It wasn’t like we were there for days on end. We recorded it, and then Hendrix and I would be sitting at home saying, ‘Let’s try that.’ Then we would go in for an hour or two.
“That’s how it was in those days,” he continues. “However long it took to record one specific idea, that’s how long we would book. We kept going in and out.” The end result was a song that showcases Hendrix’s inventive, pyrotechnic guitar playing perhaps more than any other.
In this video, we catch a glimpse of Hendrix at the very height of his fame. Two years later, in 1971, he would be found dead in his hotel room. But in this footage, he seems so alive it’s as though we could reach out and touch him.