He is well regarded for being a jaw-dropping showman who could do summersaults onstage and stand up still playing. He was likely the first guitar hero to play with his teeth. And the image of him pouring lighter fluid over his guitar and setting it ablaze is burned in the collective memory of several generations.
Yet Jimi Hendrix could also stand in place and perform with a passion and intensity that belied his flamboyant displays. His ability to mesmerize a crowd with astonishing musical virtuosity and unforgettable songs have been captured in films like Monterey Pop, Woodstock, and Isle of Wight, yet until now, his groundbreaking headline performance at 1970’s Atlanta Pop Festival remained unseen by those who weren’t at the event for more than 30 years – because event videographer Steve Rash was unable to secure a deal to create a documentary in the vein of Woodstock.
Recently, Rash, who directed The Buddy Holly Story and Can’t Buy Me Love, struck a deal with Experience Hendrix and Showtime to create Jimi Hendrix: Electric Church, which tells the story of Hendrix’s participation at the Second Annual Atlanta Pop Festival, and how the three-day event was organized by promoter Alex Cooley despite adversity from members of the community, who feared a festival in the rural village of Byron, Georgia would ignite racial tensions and provoke violence between Southern crowds and long-haired hippies.
“This was an important chapter in Jimi’s life and career that needed to be documented,” said John McDermott, director of the Jimi Hendrix catalog after a recent film screening in New York. “Hopefully this will connect with fans and they will really be able to understand what was going on with Jimi Hendrix. Here we are 45 years later and this footage still has such power.”
Performers at the event included Bob Seger, B.B. King, and the Allman Brothers, but Hendrix, who took the stage on Independence Day, was the highlight and inspired crowds to trample fences and rush the grounds, forcing festival organizers to declare the concert a free event. Since the community didn’t have enough law enforcement to patrol the grounds, they adopted a hands-off policy and let concertgoers police themselves. Remarkably, the festival remained peaceful, despite the excruciating Georgia heat and the circling biker gangs hired for security.
The first half of Jimi Hendrix: Electric Church chronicles the historical significance and execution of the festival and includes interviews with Cooley, local county officials, Jimi Hendrix Experience bassist Billy Cox and the band’s late drummer Mitch Mitchell, Paul McCartney, Steve Winwood, Derek Trucks, Black Crowes guitarist Rich Robinson, and Metallica guitarist Kirk Hammett. A striking moment comes when organizers point out that the makeshift venue didn’t have the electricity to properly light the festival grounds, so instead of using lights in the crowd, they reserved all of their power to dimly illuminate the stage.
“It’s hard to imagine that these legendary shows were held together in really sketchy ways,” McDermott said.
Despite the obstacles, Rash was able to capture the peaceful spirit and bubbling energy of the event, and the sparks really start to fly when he and his five- or six-man crew turn the cameras on Hendrix as he starts to perform.
Wearing a flowing, multicolored shirt sewn onto a cape, red pants, and a blue patterned bandana, Hendrix looks like an exotic dragon. When he moves his arms, the cape flutters like a pair of wings, and when he launches into an electrifying fill or solo, it sounds like he’s about to take flight. For about the first 20 minutes, Hendrix and his band play “Fire,” “Spanish Castle Magic,” and “All Along the Watchtower” without a word to the crowd. When Hendrix finally speaks, he sounds overwhelmed. “Thank you very much for the last four years, and also I want to dedicate this to the girl in the purple underwear.”
During an explosive “Foxey Lady,” he plays with his teeth and scrapes his strings against the microphone stand between astonishing flashes across the fretboard. “Stand up and get on our feet,” Hendrix says. “We want to do a happy birthday song to America. Everybody stand up and sing it with feeling.” The guitarist teases the crowd with a few notes from “The Star Spangled Banner” as performed at Woodstock, then transitions into the freewheeling “Purple Haze.”
“Thank you very much for staying,” he continues after the song, clearly more comfortable playing than talking. “Next time I hope to see you again soon.”
Any verbal gaffes are drowned by Hendrix’s mastery of the guitar, and “Hey Joe” and “Voodoo Child (Slight Return)” keep the crowd dancing and chanting along. Hendrix thanks the 300,000-plus members of the crowd again and again, then after performing “Stone Free” he concludes with his astonishing version of “The Star Spangled Banner.” The July 4 performance of the song gives it extra relevance, and as he plays, members of the crowd light sparklers and wave them through the air. Clearly unaware of what would happen next, the front-row cameraman jerks his lens upward as a firework blooms like a big red flower.
Hendrix effortlessly segues from the volcanic “Star Spangled Banner” (which Cooley said “knocked people’s socks off”) to “Straight Ahead,” and the cameras shoot him from a distance as fireworks continue to ignite in the evening sky.
In addition to documenting Hendrix’s musical agility and love for performing, “Electric Church” captures what turned out to be the last large-scale free multi-day concert event of the ‘70s. “This was certainly, in retrospect, sort of the end of an era, and a great end to an era,” says Glenn Phillips, whose Hampton Grease Band performed at the festival.
Hendrix’s performance at the Atlanta Pop Festival was his last great encore. Following the show, he played several more concert performances in the U.S. and a brief tour of Europe, but with the exception of the Isle of Wight Festival performance on Aug. 31, much of the energy and electricity he harnessed in Atlanta seemed to have dissipated, as if he had captured lightning in a bottle and then released it. Tragically, Hendrix died on Sept. 18, 1970, two and a half months after the Atlanta Pop Festival. He was just 27.