People, Hell and Angels isn't a jumble of Jimi Hendrix B-sides, nor does it feature half-formed songs given the ProTools treatment. And there isn't a single “live” track to be found on the album. (Robert Christgau wrote in 1986 that “after years of repackaging, only suckers and acolytes get hot for another live Hendrix album.” Christgau was not an acolyte.) In fact, People, Hell and Angels delivers crisper delights than 2010's Valleys of Neptune, interpolating less obvious (and far less accessible) material while also standing as a well-crafted, deftly paced album in its own right. The longest song runs less than seven minutes—a quantifiable indication of the album's unthreatening nature, and a testament to the good sense of Eddie Kramer (Hendrix's George Martin and the engineering sage behind the new album).
Recorded, sometimes in secret, between March, 1968 and December, 1969, People, Hell and Angels comprises 12 tracks that pop with an electricity born of Hendrix's sense of forward motion—in his capital-A art, but also in his own playing and ability to galvanize a rotating band of non-Experience types, including Stephen Stills, Lonnie Youngblood, Rocky Isaac, plus perennial accomplices Mitch Mitchell, Billy Cox, and Buddy Miles. In other words: 19 Great Performances this ain't, and thank God. Instead, we get airtight playing and new, consistently interesting material—plus more than a glimpse of the musical space toward which Jimi was feeling his way. This is Hendrix shifting into funk, but also minimalism-as-maximalism via virility and volume—that is, in the vein of Sabbath and Zeppelin (two bands forever indebted to Hendrix), People, Hell and Angels contains a quartet of songs each built on a single one- or two-string monster riff. Chord changes matter about as much here as they do on Bitches Brew. Nineteen sixty-eight to '69 was Hendrix's finest period on stage, his eyes closed even as he did the work of two guitarists without ever appearing to exert himself. On the genre experiments that appear here, Hendrix's guitar does the head, the A section, and the B section. One riff gives way to another, so that even Hendrix's more excursive sallies are by their very nature overloaded with hooks.
That's a beautiful thing, but there's something even more beautiful in hearing Jimi as accompanist, amid well-charted horns and hard-Doppling Leslie organs. On Valleys of Neptune, Kramer overdubbed backing tracks that Mitch Mitchell, Noel Redding, and Cox recorded in the late '80s. Here, there's no need; all the musicians are in place, even if some of them remain anonymous—a pitfall of recording “unofficially” all over the U.S. and the U.K. Each track rings true to its time, but Kramer's sequencing and editing elevate these individual “finds” into a disc that merits the full-listen treatment. The jazzy extract of “Easy Blues” that feels so natural on the second half of the album was cut from a take of ungodly length, but Kramer shapes everything so well that the excisions never show and the inclusions never bore.
Melodic guitar breaks on “Somewhere” recall the non-blues elements of Axis: Bold As Love; “Hear My Train A-Comin,'” Hendrix's first time recording with Cox and Miles, is pentatonic beer-rock (though this version is no mere artifact—it crackles harder than the version on Valleys of Neptune); and Hendrix reverts to his usual psychedelic blues at various other moments. But the importance of People, Hell and Angels is that it takes Hendrix's whole late-era gypsies-rainbows-and-sun sensibility and strips the excessive to the elemental. Despite rumors of imminent collaborations with Emerson, Lake & Palmer (or John Lennon, or Miles Davis, or a hundred other putative artists), Hendrix was most likely headed (in a slightly less earthbound sense) toward the Sly Stone model. His promiscuous late-career collaborations and increasing eagerness to work with horns certainly suggests this, as does Hendrix's willingness to get ushered toward funk by Buddy Miles. (“Crash Landing” is some of the funkiest guitar Hendrix has played, even considering the 1970 Fillmore New Year's material and the Woodstock album itself.) Elmore James's “Bleeding Heart,” as delivered on People, Hell and Angels, is a different song entirely from the one Hendrix had played with the Experience at Royal Albert Hall in 1969; on this track, one can hear Cox and Miles actively pushing him ever closer to funk. “Mojo Man,” which features the Ghetto Fighters, is Muddy Waters via Funkadelic, with Hendrix doing workmanlike accompaniment and a vicious call-and-response with the bari sax.
Hendrix would tiptoe around the whole funk idiom until his untimely death. But no one—not even Hendrix—knew exactly where he was going. The fan's riddle is that there's always so much suspicious “new” material that it's hard to know the wheat from the chaff. This posthumous glut is a result of Hendrix's enviable artistic freedom: He owned his masters and owed no single studio his loyalty. That freedom can birth some surprising gems, too, and People, Hell and Angels is one of them. Searching for a meaningful fusion of the crazy sounds bouncing through his head, Hendrix decided to collaborate more expansively, and the first fruits of this inclusive sensibility are promising. The album, then, is both delightful and very sad indeed. “I see fingers, hands, and shades of faces/Reachin' up and not quite, uh, touchin' the promised land,” Hendrix sings on “Somewhere.” What distinguishes him from a subsequent parade of presumptive heirs is this sense of reach, whether it be musical or spiritual. Put bluntly, the dude had “soul,” a word whose connotations broadened in very interesting ways through the '70s. People, Hell and Angels offers the clearest sense yet of how Hendrix was preparing an evolution of his own.