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The Jimi Hendrix Experience—Axis: Bold as Love (Legacy Edition)(Experience Hendrix/Legacy Recordings)

Jimi Hendrix—Valleys of Neptune(Experience Hendrix/Legacy Recordings)

Jimi Hendrix—West Coast Seattle Boy(Experience Hendrix/Legacy Recordings)

It’s unfortunate, but not really surprising, that many vocally appreciative listeners tend to focus on Jimi Hendrix’s, to put it mildly, zazzy stage presence first. Understandable: The daredevil ex-paratrooper was one of the flashiest performers who ever lived, but, a well-traveled former side man (hard to picture but true), he clearly soaked up much of his show-stopping prowess backing colorful rock ’n’ roll pioneer Little Richard. Of course, many casual Hendrix fans also say they’re amazed—quite rightfully—by his jaw-dropping guitar playing. But too many folks tend to equate flashy instrumental pyrotechnics with imagination, and the two aren’t necessarily the same thing: For every soulless hyper-noodler channeling Steve Vai there’s a minimalist Bo Diddley acolyte who will kick his ass in the human-feelings department. Hendrix was flamboyant but he played for the song, not just the pimply guitar geeks.

The upshot of all of this, though, is that people don’t focus enough on Hendrix’s other incredible gifts. For one, he was a hell of a songwriter. Take the beautiful “Little Wing” or “One Rainy Wish,” on this slick Legacy digipak of his 1967 sophomore album, Axis: Bold as Love. Remastered here by original engineer Eddie Kramer, the Experience’s gorgeous electric versions remain definitive, but next to the Beatles, few rockers wrote melodies so durably transcendent, songs that one can right away also imagine in a tender solo acoustic setting or as a lush orchestral interpretation. And while he was no super-lunged Steve Marriot or Eric Burdon, Hendrix’s expressively idiosyncratic approach as a vocalist who so effectively made the most of what he had can’t be denied, either. The hammering rocker “Spanish Castle Magic” is perhaps the best encapsulation of his instantly recognizable style, which alternates between sexy, right-in-your-ear subtlety and hard, soulful wailing. Also, while manager Chas Chandler got the final credit as producer, many of these bold sonic innovations (see “If 6 was 9”) came from the guitarist himself, who was ceaselessly searching for new sounds. (This package includes a revelatory “making-of” DVD.)

Another thing Hendrix was ceaselessly doing was recording. During the final years of his too-short life he seems to have been rolling tape as often as possible, cutting dozens of tunes that didn’t make it onto any official releases. Still, with all of the earlier reissues and bootlegs out there, it’s understandable that fans might be skeptical about Valleys of Neptune’s billing as an entirely unreleased album. And, yes, many of the 12 cuts here—all from the transitional year 1969, when the Experience was dissolving into the Band of Gypsies—have appeared elsewhere, in truncated versions or inferior quality. However, even the most devoted Hendrixians will be floatin’ from the amount of unheard material, especially the loping rocker “Ships Passing Through the Night” and the creeping blues “Crying Blue Rain” (both of these feature tracks redone in 1987 by Experience drummer Mitch Mitchell and bassist Noel Redding, a perhaps dubious concept, but at least it’s the right guys for the job).

West Coast Seattle Boy is the mother lode. A four-CD/one-DVD set in a beauteous hardback book packed with amazing unseen photos and meticulous rare track-by-rare track notes, it follows the length of Hendrix’s incredible career. The first CD chronicles his beginnings as an R&B session player, while the remaining three deliver long-shelved studio mixes and outtakes, live cuts, and most strikingly, a brace of private demos taped in hotel rooms and at his Greenwich Village apartment. One of these, from March 1968, includes early attempts at Electric Ladyland’s “1983 (A Merman I shall Turn to Be)” and “Long Hot Summer Night,” and an awesome, pre-Band version of Bob Dylan’s “Tears of Rage.” The 90-minute DVD features explosive live footage and narration by Bootsy Collins, who reads from Hendrix’s letters and journals. By no means a padded-out best-of, this box is aimed at hard-core fans, who will be elatedly overwhelmed by its riches. The world’s a mess, but thanks to these excellent reissues at least Hendrix’s freak flag continues to fly high. —Peter Aaron

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