By Derek Jung
When it comes to guitar heroes, most would agree that Jimi Hendrix was one of, if not the greatest guitarist of all time. His influences can be heard in a multitude of modern artists spanning almost every genre of rock and pop imaginable. It's only fitting that a tribute tour to the late, great guitarist would include some of the best modern blues and rock artists in the world. Sunday, at the historic Taft Theatre in downtown Cincinnati, a group of over a dozen different artists dazzled for nearly three hours.
The star-studded lineup consisted of Jimi Hendrix Experience bassist Billy Cox, blues legend Buddy Guy, Ozzy Osbourne guitarist and Black Label Society frontman Zakk Wylde, Kenny Wayne Shepherd, Jonny Lang, Dweezil Zappa, Eric Johnson, Stevie Ray Vaughan and Double Trouble drummer Chris Layton, Mato Nanji, Ana Popovic, Noah Hunt, Calvin Cooke, and Henri Brown. While each of them brought their own distinctive styles to Hendrix classics, some did them better than others.
The night started with Billy Cox and Dweezil Zappa teaming up on "Freedom". When Cox wasn't playing bass, Kenny Wayne Shepherd Band/Gary Clark Jr. bassist Scott Nelson would join the group. He and Layton would be the backing band for the majority of the night. This kind of featured guitarist rotation was a staple of the evening, with different musicians jumping in and out to create a truly once in a lifetime collaborative experience.
Dweezil Zappa was only featured in a few songs, but he used that time to showcase the excellent guitar playing and similar styling that those familiar with his father, the legendary Frank Zappa, or his band, Zappa Playing Zappa, would immediately recognize.
Ana Popovic showed some chops on her last night of the tour by performing a few songs, one featuring slide guitar. While there's no doubt that Popovic is an excellent guitar player, her slide guitar was a little to erratic for my tastes.
Eric Johnson, who admittedly I was mostly looking forward to because his song "Cliffs of Dover" was a staple of my adolescence in Guitar Hero 3, was the next featured guitarist, and tackled some of Jimi's more psychedelic material, including "Are You Experienced?" and "Third Stone From The Sun". I think those in the crowd who were either less familiar with these songs or unfamiliar with Eric's playing were bit bored of the feedback-heavy, effects laden songs. But when Johnson could actually solo, his licks sounded great and his stage mannerisms conveyed a sense of ease and comfort that really made you feel like the material was a walk in the park in terms of difficulty for him. I really wanted to see him break out into an extended solo, but he stuck to the basic structure of the original Hendrix songs more than any of the other guitarists.
Zakk Wylde, undoubtedly, had the most enthusiastic crowd reactions of the night. He spent the majority of "Purple Haze" soloing in the crowd, up and down each section of the floor, fist bumping fans along the way while sustaining trills with one hand. The problem with the amount of soloing that Wylde did is that, frankly, his flailing all sounds the same. Not only does it sound the same, but it's a pretty large departure from the original Hendrix version. Look, I get that he's a hard rock/metal guitarist, but I can picture Jimi shaking his head at what Wylde was doing out there. But I digress.
Jonny Lang was the next featured performer, and while I loved his singing on the songs he performed, especially "The Wind Cries Mary", I couldn't help but be a little irked by his guitar playing. He's a talented musician, don't get me wrong, but he takes the gaping mouth, eyes closed, orgasm-face while soloing stereotype way. too. far. That, and when he and Mato had a "guitar duel", his segments were much longer and he repeatedly cut off Mato before he was finished. Former child prodigy aside, I saw enough.
Kenny Wayne Shepherd took the stage next and really showed the crowd what a great showman he is. Granted, he was probably the most comfortable featured guitarists of the night since Layton and Nelson are his normal backing musicians in the Kenny Wayne Shepherd Band, Noah Hunt is his normal vocalist, and the songs he played were Jimi Hendrix covers that are normally included in his set - Gypsy Eyes and a Voodoo Chile/Voodoo Child medley. That said, he was definitely the show highlight for me. Just pure talent and showmanship. I loved when he held a trill with one hand and the spotlight was on him. Slowly, he made a finger gun and pointed it up and the light and shot it out, immediately backing into an immense swell in his solo. Such a badass move.
Buddy Guy was the final featured guitarist to play, and he had his own drummer so Layton left the stage for the first and last time of the night. Buddy didn't play lead on any Jimmy Hendrix songs, instead playing the Muddy Waters tune, "Close To You", with added lyrics like "One leg to the east, one leg to the west, I'm here in the middle, tryin' to do my best". Now, coming from a 79 year old man, it was absolutely hilarious. His guitar playing, understandably given his age, was sparse; he played a few extended licks, but mostly left the main guitar parts to Mato Nanji, who joined him on stage. Mato was a staple as a backing guitarist for much of the night, only singing on one song, "Hey Joe" towards the end of the night, and playing lead on a few. Having seen his main band, Indigenous, a handful of times, his presence on stage for this stood in stark contrast to the charismatic showmanship that he displayed leading Indigenous. That's not to say his playing was lacking, because it fit exactly what he needed to contribute as a backing guitarist, but he never really hit the extra gear that I admired in the past.
Overall, if you're a fan of Jimi Hendrix, good blues rock guitar playing, and seeing a handful of guitar gods in a single concert, I'd recommend seeing the Experience Hendrix Tour. At times it felt a little like a guitar solo circlejerk, especially when the meat of every song felt like its sole purpose was to be an introduction to the inevitable solo, but generally speaking I enjoyed listening to most of the artists featured.
Cheers, Jimi. You left us way too soon.
Who are we?
Derek Jung and Joseph Kathmann -- Just two ordinary (debatable) guys that love talking about music. You can read more about us here: