By Christopher Scapelliti
On February 18, 1969, the Jimi Hendrix Experience played the first of two shows at London’s Royal Albert Hall. The band had played the venue previously, on November 14, 1967, on a bill with Pink Floyd, the Nice, the Move and other sonically adventurous bands of the time. This time, however, the Experience would be the headliner, playing first on the 18th and again on the 24th to a sold-out house.
Jimi’s great talent had grown in the 15 months since the 1967 show. Regular touring had honed his free-form playing, while his extensive studio work had seen him develop into a brilliant composer and visionary producer. Unfortunately, escalating tensions between Hendrix and his band—bassist Noel Redding and drummer Mitch Mitchell—had begun to take a toll on the group’s performances. A European tour from January 8 to 23 had been a mess. The band performed lethargically, and Hendrix was uneasy with the audiences’ requests for them to play their recent hit, “All Along the Watchtower.”
He was also unhappy that his manager, Mike Jeffrey, had sent a film crew along to record the event for a television special. Jeffrey had never asked for Jimi’s creative input on the project, and Hendrix was concerned about production matters. He was especially adamant that he be allowed to choose his own engineer for the upcoming Royal Albert Hall performance, going so far as to send a memo to his manager on the subject.
In fact, Jeffrey did have an ulterior motive. Beyond the television special, he was hoping the Europe shows would provide enough recorded material for a live album, which he hoped to release that June. Once the live album was out of the way, Jeffrey planned to get another studio album out of the Experience in time for the lucrative Christmas season.
The live album was paramount to Jeffrey’s plans, but the uneven performances on the European tour had made him concerned that he would have nothing satisfactory to release. Originally, the Royal Albert Hall performance was a one-night stand, on February 18. As a safeguard, Jeffrey booked the band for the second performance, on February 24.
Following the European tour, Jimi flew to New York City to oversee the construction of his studio, Electric Lady. While the trip gave him a reprieve from his problems with the Experience, the time away only served to exacerbate the tensions between them. There were further problems awaiting him when he returned to London. On February 17, while rehearsing at the Albert Hall, Hendrix became aggravated by the constant feedback created between his guitar and the PA system. The mobile recording unit hired for the event was also experiencing electronic interference that would make the recordings unusable.
Hendrix placed a call to Chas Chandler, his former manager, and asked him to come for assistance. “It was a shambles,” Chandler told John McDermott in his book, Hendrix: Setting the Record Straight. “I ended up running both shows for him, trying to get everything right. I hadn’t been ‘hired,’ I was there to help out a friend.”
Although the recording equipment problems with were worked out, no one could guarantee that Jimi’s guitar wouldn’t suffer from feedback. To minimize the possibility, two separate sound systems were used: one for the venue and another for the mobile recording unit. This is why Jimi can be seen singing into three microphones in footage from the concerts.
Despite the preparations, the February 18 show was a disaster. Jimi played brilliantly, but Redding and Mitchell were lifeless. Chandler was irate with them. “It truly was one of the worst shows I had ever seen,” he told McDermott. “Up until that point I had been a supportive of the group, because I thought that they made for a good unit. Now I felt it was time they got thrown out.”
Under the circumstances, the show gave Jeffrey little that he could use for a live album. Rehearsals were scheduled for the days before the February 24 show to try to salvage what little opportunity remained. As it turned out, the second show was much better. Although the band lacked the fire and energy they’d displayed at earlier shows like 1967's Monterey Pop Festival, they played brilliantly. Hendrix threw out his usual set list and instead performed three of his own blues songs: “Hear My Train a Comin’,” “Red House” and “Bleeding Heart.” The group turned in solid versions of “Little Wing,” Voodoo Chile” and “Foxey Lady,” as well.
And while Hendrix didn’t believe in giving encores, he gave one to the Albert Hall crowd, bringing out Traffic’s Dave Mason and Chris Wood and percussionist Rocki Dzidzornu to perform a stirring version of “Room Full of Mirrors.”
Oddly, for all the fireworks happening onstage, the audience was exceptionally polite. They remained seated and quiet, clapping politely, as if at the symphony. Perhaps it was down to the house lights: the film crew had asked to have them left on to provide enough light for the film stock. Under the circumstances, the audience might have felt more self-conscious than usual.
Not surprisingly, the shows were the last European performances by the Jimi Hendrix Experience. On March 30, the band began a lengthy U.S. tour that would see Hendrix make his celebrated stand at Woodstock, on August 18, with a new band, Gypsy, Sun and Rainbows. The Experience had already imploded two months before, on June 29 at the Denver Pop Festival.
Performing that night in Denver, Jimi didn’t hold back the news. “This is the last gig we’ll be playing together,” he said. The original Jimi Hendrix Experience was finished.