Jimi Hendrix was such a kinetic presence that sometimes it’s easy to forget that he wasn’t the only musician on stage. Whether it was lighting guitars on fire, playing them with his teeth, or just launching into a tremendously soulful solo, all eyes and ears were on Hendrix when he took the stage.
But throughout his short career, it was rare to see Hendrix onstage without one person: Mitch Mitchell. At his first gigs in England, all the way through Woodstock and his final shows, Hendrix’s primary partner in crime was the wild jazz-influenced English drummer, only replacing him briefly in Band of Gypsys before realising his unmatched musical chemistry with Mitchell and bringing him back.
Mitchell complemented Hendrix in ways that no one else could. He could be equally flamboyant with his fills and hits, but they never overshadowed Hendrix’s own playing. Instead, the two challenged each other and frequently engaged in sonic dialogues trading barbs and phrases like they were having a friendly game of one-upmanship. Nobody was a slouch in Hendrix’s bands, but Mitchell was the only person to bring the same level of aggression, beauty, soul and technical skill that Hendrix put forth each and every time he strapped on a guitar.
Unlike Hendrix, who produced fretboard firework with such frequency that picking a single song out would be near impossible, Mitch Mitchell has a very clear high point: ‘Fire’ from The Jimi Hendrix Experience’s debut LP Are You Experienced? Mitchell gets plenty of other great fills in songs, but there is no tour de force like the clinic that Mitchell puts on in ‘Fire’.
From jazz fills to rock and roll flourishes, Mitchell sounds like he’s pulling out every trick in the bag to make an impression. It’s not terribly unlike the performance of one of Mitchell’s contemporaries, John Bonham, on the Led Zeppelin song ‘Good Times Bad Times’. Both drummers are playing like they have a gun to their respective heads and have to play their most astounding rhythms in order to survive. Both are animalistic and unhinged, but whereas Bonham relies on pure power, Mitchell’s jazz training is easy to hear in his choice of rudiments and rhythms.
Unfortunately, it’s hard to find a good video of just the isolated drums from the track. Chalk it up to the limited technology of the time making it almost impossible to separate and retain all the power and glory of Mitchell’s performance. The video below is weirdly reverberated and effects-heavy, which is a shame, but you probably don’t need an isolated track to hear just how impressive Mitchell’s performance is. The normally recorded song will be just fine.
Check out the isolated drums, and the full band performance, of ‘Fire’ down below.