Looking back through Jimi Hendrix's trains
By NICK TAVARES
STATIC and FEEDBACK Editor
“Anyway, we’d like to do a slow blues here. We’d like to do a thing called ‘Lonesome Train,’ we can call it that for right now...”
So goes an introduction from Jimi Hendrix at the Fillmore East, two songs into the early show on New Year’s Eve, 1969. What follows is just over nine minutes of the blues set alight. It carries on in the tradition of the blues masters Hendrix studied, updating the attack of Muddy Waters and the lyrical themes of Robert Johnson, recast in the midst of the electric church, of which Hendrix modeled his live performances.
It’s "Hear My Train A Comin'," a song that pops up frequently in Hendrix’s catalog, with more than a dozen versions appearing on various albums. But it’s not present on any of the three studio albums released in his lifetime, or the one live album, or the Smash Hits compilation. For many who never got to see the man play live, it likely first appeared after Hendrix died in Sept. 1970, and versions began appearing on the dozens of records released in his wake.
It appears as early as 1967 — Hendrix ran through an acoustic version at Bruce Fleming Photography Studio, and then twice more with the full Jimi Hendrix Experience for BBC’s Top Gear program that would later appear on the BBC Sessions collection. The acoustic reading is arguably the purest expression of his devotion to the early blues recordings of Waters and the like, with the song running just over three minutes and featuring Hendrix’s pensive but clear mastery on a heavy duty 12-string. In those BBC versions, he plugs in and stretches out a bit, though the five-minute running times will seem restrained in comparison to later performances.
From there, it was a staple. Based on how often and how prominently he featured the song, he obviously felt it was an important marker in his abilities and how he wanted to present his vision. “Hear My Train A Comin’” was a highlight at a number of important 1968 shows, including his three-night, six-show stand at San Francisco’s Winterland Ballroom. It appears in the setlist of the original Experience’s final shows in both the U.K. (at the Royal Albert Hall, Feb. 1969) and in the U.S. (later that year in June at the Denver Pop Festival), before Noel Redding left the group and Hendrix began to seriously retool his music, both on stage and in the studio.
Still, the song survives this significant transition. It shows up again early in the set with the short-lived Gypsy Sun & Rainbows band at Woodstock and, perhaps most tellingly, within the first set of the four Band of Gypsys shows at the Fillmore East performed on Dec. 31st and Jan. 1st of 1969 rolling into 1970. Well documented but worth repeating, those concerts were a deliberate about-face for Hendrix from the high-flying histrionics of the Experience. He had new music and he played with new people and he wanted the focus to be not on the hits or the flash but solely on this message. His brilliance and guitar playing at those shows are incredibly well documented with three releases — 1970’s Band of Gypsys, 1998’s Live at the Fillmore East and 2016’s Machine Gun: The Fillmore East First Show 12/31/1969. He had traded in some of the more visually arresting showmanship for even more focus on the songs and his playing, and those four concerts arguably present him at his most adventurous and powerful on stage.
Yet “Hear My Train A Comin’” — or “Lonesome Train,” as he introduced it before the first Fillmore show — didn’t appear on the original Band of Gypsys album that he oversaw. Perhaps he had thoughts of saving it and nailing down a studio version for his in-progress First Rays of the New Rising Sun double LP. When the Hendrix family finally got around to releasing a version of that unfinished album, following Hendrix’s own notes with guidance from his engineer Eddie Kramer, it was left off. Likely, it was because it had been lapped by other material.
Indeed, most of the studio versions seem date from before the New Year’s concerts. Versions from April 1969 have since been released on posthumous albums Midnight Lightning, Valleys of Neptune and Both Sides of the Sky, while another take from May 21, 1969 found a home on People, Hell and Angels. Even if he had shelved it while he worked on his new album, it was still a war horse in concert — a 1970 version at the Atlanta Pop Festival survives on the Freedom album, and it was in the setlist as late as his Rainbow Bridge show in Hawaii on July 30th.
Maybe he would’ve resumed studio work after Sept. 1970. Or it could have been that “Hear My Train A Comin’” was destined to be a song that becomes an anthem without ever making a proper album or receiving the definitive studio treatment, à la the Who’s “Naked Eye.” That kind of distinction should have come after a decade or two, as the catalog of brilliant albums and performances stacked up with one song consistently maintaining its place in the set. That obviously never came to pass.
But there’s plenty of evidence it should have. It’s a small part of the tragedy, the what-could-have-been in the long career of an artist. What’s left is what’s left, and there are an incredible number of versions of this particular song, all carrying their own weight and own personality. It’s fun in a way to see some of them laid out and stacked against each other. It’s better listening to them all, though.
E-mail Nick Tavares at firstname.lastname@example.org