All-star guitars line up to pay homage to the greatest of them all

by Ryan Snyder

Kenny Wayne Shepherd and Robert Randolph pay homage to Jimi Hendrix at a sold-out DPAC (photo by Ryan Snyder)

How many different ways are there to say “facemelting guitar solo”? That question, along with “How many guitarists does it take to pay tribute to the greatest of all time,” was explored in-depth during the final stop of the current Experience Hendrix tour Sunday night at the Durham Performing Arts Center.

Blueshounds and classic rock devotees drooled over the who’s-who of guitar gods on what practically amounted to a traveling mini-festival, while gearheads crowded around the stage to photograph the arsenal of Fenders, Gibsons and Vox amps preshow. Ernie Isley, Joe Satriani, Eric Johnson, Brad Whitfield of Aerosmith and Band of Gypsys bassist Billy Cox headed up a lineup accented by younger guns Jonny Lang and Kenny Wayne Shepherd. Seems like a lot, doesn’t it? Not when you throw in Living Colour and Sacred Steel featuring Robert Randolph, and even then the full lineup Sunday night isn’t accounted for.

Bodies streamed on and off stage literally with every song, crowding the stage with up to 10 at a time in homage to a broad range of Hendrix’s finest work. Hendrix’s adopted sister Janie, who’s been accused of bilking her dead brother’s estate over the years, gave a few words to kick the evening off, as Isley, Cox and former Stevie Ray Vaughn drummer Chris Layton opened up with “Stone Free” in the classic power-trio style that Hendrix revolutionized. Each guitarist brought something unique and personal to the set, with Isley, the closest thing to a Hendrix contemporary, mirroring his flair for acrobatics. Isley reslung his guitar in mid-solo to whip it around behind his back during “Manic Depression,” where he segued the song’s unforgettably crunchy melody into an acidic version of “Amazing Grace,” which he played entirely with his tongue. What a way to meet women.

For all the phenomenal musicians waiting in the wings, the tour’s rigid setlist wasn’t particularly exciting this time around. They stuck to the easily recognizable radio fare for the most part, ignoring some of the better B-sides such as “Machine Gun,” “Izabella,” or “Who Knows” despite audience shouts for their inclusion.

As Isley departed, Janie Hendrix stood offstage baiting the audience with “It’s not over yet!,” which were her exact words at every single lineup change, as if people were threatening to run screaming at any moment. Especially not when one of the most energetic acts of the evening were prepared to prove to everyone that they aren’t a bookend opposite Jesus Jones on an early ’90s rock sampler. Living Colour is an incredible live band, made even more so that their original lineup is still intact and made their presence felt with some of Hendrix’s funkier cuts. Guitarist Vernon Reid went heavy on the wah-wah for “Power of Soul,” as Corey Glover tested his immaculate pipes — sans dreadlocks — on a raging version of “Crosstown Traffic” that saw him, Reid and bassist Doug Wimbush spilling into the audience.

Some sets seemed more rushed than others, and one of those was that of Eric Johnson, who managed to shine amidst an exceptionally uninspired rhythm section of Layton and bassist Scott Nelson. Both were so bland and lifeless onstage that one had to wonder if they hadn’t already punched their flight home before the tour concluded that night, but it was of no matter to the virtuosic Johnson. He raced through solos on “Bold as Love” and “House Burning Down,” but did so effortlessly, with an understated cool that belied his immeasurable talent.

Almost a polar opposite of Johnson, Jonny Lang made every note look arduous and thorny, and his teenage cheering section during “Fire” was a bit much. Don’t get me wrong, he had a place among the rest, but his Stevie Ray act didn’t quite measure up to his creativity. He did bring it on “Spanish Castle Magic,” though he clearly overmatched Whitfield as they traded solos.

Regardless of the technical and creative mastery of anyone to that point or after, Kenny Wayne Shepherd was head and shoulders above them all. Vocalist Noah Hunt’s timing was a little off, but his presence was simply a courtesy to the songs; it was Shepherd’s brilliant playing that fulfilled the promise of “Experiencing Hendrix.” His solo on “Voodoo Child (Slight Return)” was so wild and unhinged that what was promised as a medley of his favorite songs simply became a freewheeling, gunslinging romp of preening, posturing and one absurd riff after another.

If a purple bandana-clad Robert Randolph and three other pedal-steel players could meet the lofty bar set by Shepherd by himself, neither would the ensuing barrage of collaborations. The excessive number of guitars onstage at any given time simply became overindulgent and seemingly against the spirit of the man in reverence. Of course, the lamest of them all was saved for last, as Joe Satriani wonked through a blandly experimental “Third Stone from the Sun” saved only by some excellent drum and bass by Wimbush and Calhoun. As a full cast of participants closed the night out with “Red House” and “Hey Joe,” it served to remind that sometimes the whole is less than the sum of its parts. Hendrix was one man with one guitar, and it’s fitting that the best representation was such.