“We didn’t want to do the whole lot of the Experience but there again they’ve never really heard anyone playing it there and playing it well. I shouldn’t say that!” Noel Redding, the bass player of the legendary Jimi Hendrix Experience, is talking of the gig in the Czech Republic documented on his new live album, “Live From Bunkr. Prague,” due June 24 from Track Records.
It features an all-star cast that includes Redding on bass, Ivan Kral (Patti Smith Group) on rhythm guitar, Anthony Krizan (Spin Doctors) on lead guitar and vocals, and Frankie La Rocka (New York Dolls, Bryan Adams) on drums. The gig in question took place in 1995 and was attended by no less than Czech president Vaclav Havel.
After a mere 45 minutes of rehearsal, the band performed a surprisingly slick set that consisted mostly of well-loved Experience songs such as “Voodoo Child,” “Stone Free,” “Purple Haze,” and “Little Wing.” There were two exceptions. “We threw in ‘Silver Paper’ because I’d just done a stint with Mountain in America on a quick tour and I’ve always really liked Mountain,” Redding explains. “We learned it at the rehearsal. I had a vague idea and it was basically ad-libbed but we got through it. Then Ivan wanted to do that Lennon song [‘Cold Turkey’], so we did that, which broke up the stuff from the Experience.”
Krizan is surprisingly effective at mimicing Hendrix’s technique, capturing the wobble-board sound of “Voodoo Child” as well as he does the undulating delicacy of “Little Wing.” “I thought he did a really good job ‘cos it’s rather hard for anyone since James,” Redding says of the task of duplicating Hendrix’s fretwork. “A lot of people have tried. There again, he didn’t play exactly the same thing but he kept the sort of theme of it.”
The only time Krizan struggles is on “Red House,” where Hendrix’s effortless fluidity on the original understandably proves beyond him. “Maybe he was a bit nervous about that track ‘cos I still think it’s a very special track from the Experience,” concedes Redding, adding, “I think the lady who sang the vocal on it sort of made up for it.” He is referring to Tonya Graves, who asked a wary Redding whether she could be allowed to handle the lead vocal on the Experience chestnut. “I said to her, ‘Can you sing it in B?’ She said, ‘Yeah’. So I said, ‘Okay’ and she did it exactly the way the Experience had done it,” he says. “I thought she did an amazing job.”
Though Redding says “I’m not into politics or presidents,” he admits he was tickled when he heard Havel might be attending the show. Havel, of course, is a longtime rock’n’roll fan whose ascent to power was dubbed the Velvet Revolution in reference to his penchant for Lou Reed’s Velvet Underground. Recalls Redding, “We did the gig and then I suddenly noticed on the side of the stage they’d set up this small little table with a couple of blokes all wearing jeans and this bloke sitting down drinking a pint of Guinness, of all things — and that’s the president! After the gig, we said hello to him and had a chat and it was grand. Very, very nice person. He said he really enjoyed it [and asked if] we could play another song.”
Though it saw a limited edition release in the Czech Republic shortly after the gig, this is the album’s first mass-market issue. However, the Track label it appears on has no real link with the U.K. Track label to which Hendrix was originally signed. This is perhaps just as well, since Redding has been battling Track for back royalties for years.
“Some lawyer I had in the ’70s wrote a letter and then we got a letter back saying unfortunately they’d had a fire and their files had been destroyed, which is quite a standard one,” he says. “And then we wrote another letter. We did get a reply saying, ‘well, actually Track did everything through Polydor — you have to go to them.’ So it’s the same old story: passing the buck. I never got a penny from Track, ever.”
Redding did at least get publishing royalties for “Little Miss Strange” and “She’s So Fine,” the two songs he wrote for the Experience. They will be appearing on a compilation of his music that he’s hoping will be released toward the end of this year. “That goes from 1962 until 2000,” he says. “I had a band called the Lonely Ones — I found an acetate from 1963. I had a band called the Loving Kind which had some records out on Piccadilly. Then I did the Fat Mattress and I’ve got some unreleased stuff, songs I wrote which became Mattress songs except they’re recorded with an orchestra. Then there’s a jam session with Randy California. And then newer stuff with Eric Bell. It’s a double CD.”
For Redding, the time that he spent recording for Hendrix constituted the guitarist’s artistic peak. “I much prefer the stuff we did earlier than after the band split up,” he admits. “I think Jimi needed to have a rest at that point. He should have actually taken some time off and done nothing, ‘cos we all worked our arses off for three years.”
Most observers attest that while Billy Cox, the bassist Hendrix worked with when the Experience broke up in the summer of 1969, was superior technically to Redding, the Experience had a chemistry Hendrix’s later bands lacked. “The thing is, myself and Hendrix used to ‘compete’ and it worked,” he explains. “Being an ex-guitar player, I was playing chords and stuff which impressed Hendrix. Not many bass players play chords. I know Billy Cox is an excellent bass player but I probably was a bit more flamboyant.”
After that split, Redding endured incredible financial hardship and emotional trauma in his efforts to obtain his royalties, harrowingly detailed in his book “Are You Experienced?” Nevertheless, he now turns down work in order to live the quiet life. “I play in my local town every Friday and I do the occasional zipping away but I only go away on a weekend,” he says. “I wouldn’t go on a tour ever again. I realized I prefer staying at home, even though I can’t really afford it.”
Asked whether his ordeal at the hands of the music business makes him regret ever having become a rock star, he says, “I should have been a plumber. That’s a joke. But the thing is, plumbers get paid. But there again, I’m still playing, thank God. That’s the main thing.”