Guitar legends light up Davis's Mondavi Center in honor of Jimi Hendrix

Billy Cox on bass

By Paul Piazza

Photos by Paul Piazza

Many of the world’s six-string legends gathered in Davis at the Robert and Margrit Mondavi Center for the Performing Arts on February 22 to honor the music of Jimi Hendrix, one of rock’s all-time influential guitarists. The show was led by bassist Billy Cox, who met Hendrix when both men were in the army in the 1960s.

Back then, Cox was walking by an army club when he heard Hendrix playing through an open door. He was struck by the sound, which he said appeared to be a combination of “John Lee Hooker and Beethoven.” The two went on to jam together on the military base and years later reconnected and combined with Buddy Miles to create the formidable trio Band of Gypsys.

Today, the 75 year-old Cox is the only surviving member from either Band of Gypsys or the Jimi Hendrix Experience—Hendrix’s two main groups. Both groups were the vessels for the pioneering guitarist’s amazing psychedelic explorations during his remarkably brief, but extremely productive four-year peak. Hendrix passed away at the age of 27, but it’s fair to say that he continues to influence guitarists around the world.

Early on, Hendrix was influenced by the likes of blues legends Muddy Waters and Howlin’ Wolf. As he experimented with sound, he added a psychedelic element to the spirit of guitar. He also gained widespread notice for his style, in which he dressed colorfully and utilized a wild bag of theatrics, which included playing with his teeth.

Chris Layton on drums

But it’s his sound that continues to be a well of inspiration. Hendrix is most notable for his use of distortion and feedback that have permanently embedded into many listeners’ brains. Does “Purple Haze” sound familiar? Hendrix pushed that song to another level with the use of the Octavia pedal, which produces a sound another octave higher than the sound that is being played. On “Voodoo Child (Slight Return),” he blew minds with his extraordinary use of the wah-wah pedal, a staple for many of today’s players. A critic once said that Hendrix “took the blues out of the Mississippi Delta and sent it to Mars.”

Many have tried to emulate Hendrix and only a few have come close. The late Stevie Ray Vaughan was one of those. He owned 9 Octavia pedals and was pretty wicked on the wah-wah. His takes on “Little Wing” and “Voodoo Child (Slight Return)” are legendary. Vaughan drummer Chris Layton was the house drummer for most of this night at Mondavi. Having him there was a nice touch.

Two young six-string slingers, Jonny Lang and Kenny Wayne Shepherd, emulate the Hendrix tradition in much of their blues-based sound. Lang took on “Spanish Castle Magic” and Shepherd did “Come on (Let the Good Times Roll),” which was slightly marred by what may have been the Davis venue’s first brawl between two women in the expensive seats. (Seriously, come on.)

Another luminary in the house was Dweezil Zappa, a great player whose father, the late Frank Zappa, is widely considered a soloist in the upper echelon of history. Dweezil is no slouch. He tore it up on “Ezy Rider.” Also on hand was Keb’ Mo’, whose subtle presence on “Catfish Blues” reeled things back to old-school stylings. This offered quite a contrast to that of Zakk Wylde, the lone representative of heavy metal, where Hendrix’s influence also continues to prevail.

Zakk Wylde among the crowd at the Mondavi Center

Wylde (Ozzy Osbourne, Black Label Society) extended the normally sublime “Little Wing” into a searing, nearly 20-minute opus, which he played partially among the crowd. Mid song, he stepped off the stage and wandered into the seats, where he dramatized the song’s soaring solo with arpeggios and other super-fast techniques. This tickled the slightly stunned audience, who gave him an ovation.

Buddy Guy on guitar

However, this ovation was second only to the adulation that was reserved for Buddy Guy when he came out near the end. The 80-year-old blues artist would still be six years Hendrix’s senior had he lived. Guy, who recorded with the likes of Waters, Wolf and blues titan Little Walter has continued to be a flamboyant player. His use of distortion and his capacity to bend guitar strings and twist his face into the shape of what he is playing remains pure poetry. He is also funny as hell. Needless to say, he had the audience in the palm of his hand during his stint in the finale.

It was fitting to see both Guy and Cox still going strong today. The players did justice to Hendrix’s licks on the big Mondavi stage. One could also venture to guess that somewhere in the world at this moment, behind a closed bedroom door, some girl or boy is trying to learn the chords to “Purple Haze.”

The musicians take their bow.

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