'Experience Hendrix' tour celebrates guitar great's music

| Wednesday, March 19, 2014, 9:01 p.m.

The debate over Jimi Hendrix, at this point, pretty much boils down to “Best rock guitarist ever?” or “Most important rock guitarist ever?” Yeah, not very interesting.

You could make a case for Jimmy Page, or Eric Clapton, Frank Zappa or ... nah. It's still Hendrix.

There are probably a fair number of guitarists whose technical ability surpassed the late Hendrix, but nobody “changed the game” quite like he did. That his fearless musical imagination still inspires, still surprises, is really no surprise at all.

“For me, I learned a lot from him about not observing boundaries,” blues-rock guitarist Kenny Wayne Shepherd says. “Allowing myself to be creative and push the limits of myself creatively, and not be kept in a box. Watching him perform, visually, he was as entertaining as he was musically. He had a big influence on me as an artist. He's constantly voted as the most influential guitarist of all time. It's pretty impressive what he was able to accomplish and the impact he's had.”

Of course, at age 36, Shepherd never actually got to see Hendrix, who died in 1970, perform. However, Shepherd didn't let that stop him from absorbing the Hendrix mythos as much as possible.

Shepherd is part of the “Experience Hendrix” tour, coming to town March 20. They come from all over the musical map: from blues guitarists like Shepherd, Buddy Guy and Ana Popovic, to funk legend Bootsy Collins, to metal guitarist Zakk Wylde, to the Tex-Mex roots-rock of David Hidalgo and Cesar Rosas of Los Lobos.

“I knew Jimi's dad (James “Al” Hendrix), before he passed away, and his sister,” Shepherd says. “I've been a part (of ‘Experience Hendrix') since it began (in 1995). It was originally one show, once a year, at a kind of small venue in Seattle. It grew from a smallish venue to a big theater in Seattle. One year, they decided three shows in a row, in different cities. Next thing you know, it's a full-fledged tour.”

It's possible that they could keep adding musicians, but that would either leave them with only a few minutes each to do their thing — or seven-hour concerts.

“Everybody does three to five songs,” Shepherd says. “I generally do a song called ‘I Don't Live Today' and ‘Come On' — originally an Earl King song — that Hendrix covered. I also do a medley of ‘Voodoo Child (Blues)' and ‘Voodoo Chile Blues' and ‘Voodoo Chile (Slight Return)'.”

Somehow, all these personalities seem to get along just fine, despite that fact that few of them are used to sharing the spotlight with anybody. They all love Hendrix, though.

“There's not egos, no competition,” Shepherd says. “It's very friendly. Nobody's trying to one-up each other.”

Hendrix's influence doesn't seem like it's going be waning any time soon. In fact, it's possible interest in all things Hendrix may increase — a long-awaited biopic about his early pre-fame days, “Jimi: All Is By My Side,” just debuted at South By Southwest in Austin, Texas. It focuses on the year that Hendrix spent in England before taking America by storm at the Monterey Pop Festival in 1967. It stars Andre Benjamin, best known as rapper Andre 3000 of Outkast, who's already a legend in hip-hop (and can play the guitar).

The U.S. Postal Service is honoring Hendrix with a commemorative Forever stamp, created by artist Rudy Gutierrez. The image, which resembles a vintage 45-rpm record sleeve, references the butterflies from Hendrix's song “Little Wing,” has a third-eye symbol to represent his spiritual side and a petroglyph to symbolize his Native American heritage. Hendrix is depicted wearing one of his signature military jackets and playing one of his white Fender Stratocaster guitars. It also debuted at the South By Southwest festival.

Michael Machosky is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at mmachosky@tribweb.com or 412-320-7901.

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