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Hendrix: The Gigs That Changed History – #10 Atlanta Pop Festival 2

July 4, 1970

In many ways it’s quintessentially American. We’re into the early hours of the Fourth of July, 1970, and Jimi Hendrix is marking the occasion by striking the opening chords of the national anthem. His distinctive take on The Star-Spangled Banner is unfurled before half a million people in Atlanta, Georgia, while fireworks pop and flash overhead. He’s nearing the end of his show, having played to the biggest American audience of his life. Appropriately too, it’s been one of his greatest ever performances. He has a terrific new band, a new studio and a bushel of scintillating new songs to boot. The future, from this vantage point, looks to be there for the taking.

There’s a lovely, fleeting moment in Jimi Hendrix Experience: Electric Church – a new film about his show at the second Atlanta International Pop Festival – that encapsulates this sense of celebration. Riffing on guitar in the blackness, Hendrix turns his head and glances up, just as a firework flower bursts red in the sky. “He was playing to the fireworks,” recalls harmonica player Thom Doucette, also on the bill in The Allman Brothers Band. “It was gorgeous, man. Unbelievable. It was beautiful, it was Jimi.”

Nothing messes with the truth quite like accepted wisdom. The Hendrix myth has it that Woodstock, in August ’69, represented the pinnacle of his live work towards the end of his life. And that his Isle of Wight appearance in August 1970, long since commemorated with a series of audio and visual releases, was his next (and last) festival of any note. 

Think again. If anything deserves to stand as a fitting monument to Hendrix’s final months, it’s Atlanta. “By the time Jimi got to Atlanta there was a new confidence building in him,” says his engineer/producer Eddie Kramer. “He was ready to break through to the next stage of what he was aspiring to. Miles Davis and John Coltrane, both senior statesmen of jazz, were respected as grand musicians operating at another level. And Jimi was at that level, there’s no question.”

If The Star-Spangled Banner is the most enduring memory of Hendrix at Woodstock, it can be argued that Atlanta’s rendition was far more meaningful. Woodstock’s untidy scheduling had meant that Hendrix, the last act of the festival, took to the stage at nine o’clock on Monday morning. Most of the crowd had already gone home or were still asleep, leaving him to play to a relatively small 200,000.

Atlanta was something else. Making his entrance at half past midnight, Hendrix played to 500,000 people, the overwhelming majority of whom were all too eager to show their appreciation. The Georgia locale, too, was a world away from upstate New York. Atlanta was still a segregated city with an unrepentant white governor. As such, it was a highly charged environment.

Atlanta also served as a microcosm of civil unrest in America. Only two months had passed since four students were gunned down by the US National Guard at Ohio’s Kent State University during anti-Vietnam War protests. Eleven days later, police killed another two students at a demo
against racial discrimination at Jackson State College in Mississippi. Newsweek were swift to declare that President Nixon was in crisis at home as well as abroad.

The dubiously named Honor America Day was set up to counteract the growing sense of national discord. Organised by the Reverend Billy Graham and comedian Bob Hope, and due to take place on the same Fourth of July near the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, DC, it was conceived as a way of uniting the populace. Dissenters were actively discouraged from turning up (“We want to see entertainment that’s on the plus side,” said Hope. “We don’t want anything political.”), while the jingoistic nature of the event was seen by many as little more than an excuse for a pro-war rally. Nearly 700 miles south, meanwhile, the Atlanta Festival was pooling a vast swathe of dissolute American youth.

“1970 was a very interesting time for all people involved, whether it was Jimi, kids in the US or political and civil rights,” offers Electric Church director John McDermott, who’s also an archivist of Experience Hendrix LLC. “You had Kent State, the war in Vietnam at its height and the draft. So that undercurrent was there and these kids wanted to be a part of it. Not everybody everywhere in America was on the same wavelength. And Atlanta was headlined by Jimi, a guy who’d served in the military and who’d faced civil rights oppression. It’s an interesting dynamic.”

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