WHEN IT COMES to the pantheon of Jimi Hendrix festival sets, the second International Atlanta Pop Festival sometimes falls between the cracks. It’s odd, because the 500,000 flower children who flocked to a field on July 4, 1970 represented the largest crowd of the guitarist’s career. It’s a shame, too, because this event was a righteous finger in the eye of racism. Yet it’s understandable, because although Atlanta was filmed by Steve Rash, the director failed to settle a deal and dumped the footage in his barn.
Exhumed by Experience Hendrix, Jimi’s set is theoretically the main grab of this DVD set, though in truth, Electric Church is most gripping during the preceding feature, which does a grand job of bottling the tinderbox atmosphere in the countdown to the three-day event. Atlanta in 1970 was still a de facto segregated city, thanks largely to Georgia state governor Lester Maddox: a cretin who appears in archive footage banning blacks from his café and decrying the “filthy, illegal activities” of the festival to come.
To Atlanta promoter Alex Cooley, the prejudice in the air made it even more vital for Hendrix to headline the festival, as much for the guitarist’s love-thy-neighbour worldview as his musical prowess (“I had to have Jimi Hendrix,” he recalls, “That was the whole premise.”). So began an irresistible tit-for-tat duel between the counterculture and The Man, with Cooley renting the festival location from a crazy old moonshiner and Maddox buzzing the site in a chopper to primly declare it a “disaster area”.
For a time, it seemed the festival would indeed collapse: the rural location meant power was negligible, traffic tailed back for miles and in a forehead-slapping reprise of Altamont, bikers were hired as casual security. Strangely enough, though, when the fences were torn down, the festival found a sort of wonky harmony: a blind eye was turned to drugs and nudity, and there were few arrests for anything harder.
At this point, the talking heads roll over and let Jimi take over, the guitarist and his Mk.II Experience line-up ripping into an opening brace of Fire and a punchy Spanish Castle Magic. We reviewed the cleaned-up audio CD of Atlanta back in issue 26, and on this DVD, the visual footage is none too shabby either. As for Hendrix, his playing can be imprecise and muddle-headed: he even starts All Along The Watchtower in the wrong key. But the spirit is there, and when he freaks out with a climactic Star Spangled Banner, you won’t argue with Cooley’s abiding memory that “it knocked people’s socks off”.
Ultimately, Atlanta was a last gasp. For Hendrix himself, of course, who would be dead within two months, but also for the anarchic, outdoor festival that would shortly be sanitised, buffed and wrapped up in a Staples banner. It’s left to a proud but rueful Rash for the final word: “We all knew that this innocence was over…”