Bluesbreakers: Benji Kirkpatrick

It’s a brave man who takes on the Hendrix catalogue. It’s a braver one who does so with a banjo. “I’ve been a fan since I was 11,” explains Benji Kirkpatrick, “and having tried to copy Hendrix, and to be him, when I was young, I realised it was futile. It was actually Voodoo Child that sparked this album. I was messing about on the banjo one day and realised it worked really well. So I thought maybe I could tackle a load of others, in a completely acoustic, stripped-back kind of way. It’ll probably surprise a few people…”

Hendrix Songs is the latest curveball in a career that has never been on autopilot. Born in 1976 to British folkies John Kirkpatrick and Sue Harris, Benji has “kept a few plates spinning” since his solo debut in 1998, recording alongside Seth Lakeman, leading the boisterous folk trio Faustus and co-founding Bellowhead in 2004. “The simplest way to describe it is big-band folk,” he says of the latter. “Bellowhead gigs get raucous. Obviously, real ale is a big thing among folkies. The piss-up is still a staple in the folk world.”

Though clearly no slouch on guitar, Kirkpatrick banned the instrument from Hendrix Songs, rebuilding 12 cherished tracks from the ground up on banjo, bouzouki and mandolin. “We all know that he’s the guitar god, and I was never going to match that, so I made a conscious decision to take it out of the equation. I wanted to concentrate on the songs.”

Not every arrangement came as fast as Voodoo Child. “Some were harder than others,” admits Benji. “With Angel, the chords are all over the place. I thought, ‘Well, I’m never gonna be able to work that out on the bouzouki’. But when I sat down and properly concentrated, I realised that it is possible.

Burning Of The Midnight Lamp was tricky too. I tried it on guitar years ago, before this project, in a DADGAD tuning, but because the chords are quite wacky, it didn’t translate so well. I managed to find a way of doing it on bouzouki, but it took some persistence. Gypsy Eyes, I had a go at, but I never quite got to something that was usable.”

Perhaps the most ambitious element of the project is the accompanying UK tour – dubbed Bendrix – which sees Benji performing in front of projected artworks created by the Shropshire artist Esther Thorpe. Matching sound to vision is trickier than it seems, he says: “She was working with each track – and the length it is on the album – to create something in the same mood. So live, I haven’t got much room for manoeuvre. If I feel like going off on one à la Hendrix then I’ve got to stick to the timings for the visuals to work. It’s a discipline.”

And of course, it wouldn’t be a Hendrix show without a spot of auto-destructive art. “Come the end of the tour,” smiles Benji, semi-serious, “I might burn my banjo!”

“Well, apart from Jimi Hendrix, who was very much a bluesman, I think, there’s also BB King, Robert Johnson and Lightnin’ Hopkins. I also love Howlin’ Wolf: just the sort of raw, visceral nature of his style of delivery. Ry Cooder was a big influence on me as well.”

Hendrix Songs is out now via EDJ Records

Henry Yates

Henry Yates has been a freelance journalist since 2002 and written about music for titles including The Guardian, The Telegraph, NME, Classic Rock, Guitarist, Total Guitar and Metal Hammer. He is the author of Walter Trout's official biography, Rescued From Reality, a music pundit on Times Radio and BBC TV, and an interviewer who has spoken to Brian May, Jimmy Page, Ozzy Osbourne, Ronnie Wood, Dave Grohl, Marilyn Manson, Kiefer Sutherland and many more.