Jimi Hendrix Plays Maui Volcano: Inside Guitar Hero's "Most Unusual" Concert | Revolver

Jimi Hendrix Plays Maui Volcano: Inside Guitar Hero's "Most Unusual" Concert

How chaotic, ill-fated movie 'Rainbow Bridge' set stage for Hendrix's fabled 1970 gig
jimi-hendrix-walter_iooss_jr_-_getty.jpg, Walter Iooss Jr./Getty Images
Jimi Hendrix, Madison Square Garden, New York City, May 18th, 1969
photograph by Walter Iooss Jr./Getty Images

"Jimi Hendrix and I played in a lot of concerts. A lot of them were strange, but this is the most unusual one — on the cattle ranch on the side of a volcano."

That's Jimi Hendrix Experience bassist Billy Cox speaking in the new documentary Music, Money, Madness … Jimi Hendrix in Maui. The film, which arrives alongside the double album Live in Maui, tells the story behind one of the more curious moments in Hendrix's legendary career: his 1970 performance on the lower slope of Maui's Haleakalā volcano that was featured in the ill-fated movie Rainbow Bridge.

Hendrix released just three studio albums — 1967's Are You Experienced and Axis: Bold as Love and 1968's Electric Ladyland — before his untimely death on September 18th, 1970. But the guitarist's impact on heavy music is incalculable. His unique alchemy — turning supercharged blues into a psychedelic, genre-destroying and -creating experience — is truly in a realm of its own. Hendrix's otherworldly playing transcended easy classification as he advanced the blues and hard rock forms and helped pave the way for metal and all its subsequent offshoots.

Not surprisingly, the list of Hendrix devotees is filled with a who's who of heavy-music innovators in their own right. Minor Threat and Fugazi mainman Ian MacKaye has been obsessed with the guitarist from childhood. Queens of the Stone Age's Josh Homme considers him "the ultimate guitarist." Melvins' Buzz Osbourne and Baroness' Gina Gleason both think he was the real-deal complete package. John 5 had a "total epiphany" watching his performance in the Woodstock movie. Before Motörhead, Lemmy Kilmister worked as Hendrix's roadie, and witnessed his generosity and "magic" up close. Metallica's Kirk Hammett credits "Purple Haze" with inspiring him to form his first band. Zakk Wylde straight-up calls him "the Jesus Christ of the electric guitar" and Lamb of God's Mark Morton believes Hendrix's "level of impact is beyond solar systems." The list goes on and on.

Since his passing, scores of Hendrix studio and live recordings have been issued that further expand his legacy. But the story surrounding his volcanic performance on July 30th, 1970 — which Live in Maui presents in full for the first time ever — just might be the strangest.

The path to the Jimi Hendrix Experience descending on Haleakalā begins in mid-1970 with an overly ambitious manager, an Ivy League-educated alien-obsessed director known as "The Wizard" and a nice chunk of major-label cash.

Back then, Hendrix and his band — Cox and drummer Mitch Mitchell — were working on the follow-up to the undisputed classic Electric Ladyland. He was also in the process of building out the now-iconic Electric Lady Studios in New York City with the help of audio engineer Eddie Kramer. But construction continued to run over budget.

"1969 was a critical year for Jimi," Kramer says in Music, Money, Madness … "He was on his own, running around going from studio to studio to try to put stuff down, while we were in the process of building Electric Lady Studios. The more we got into the building of Electric Lady Studios the more there was demand on Jimi to go out on the road to get money to fund the whole operation."

Unable to keep up, Hendrix's team switched their approach. Manager Michael Jeffery called a meeting with Hendrix's label Warner Bros. Records and successfully negotiated a $500,000 advance to complete the studio. But the story goes, as told in the doc, that Jeffery had a second motive for the meeting: to get financing for Rainbow Bridge — a counterculture film he was producing with director and Andy Warhol–acolyte Chuck Wein. Jeffery's pitch was if Warner funded the film, they would receive the rights to its soundtrack album consisting of new Jimi Hendrix studio recordings. His plan worked, and Warner signed on to back the film.

Jeffrey's hope was that Rainbow Bridge would be an update to the award-winning 1969 independent film Easy Rider — which starred Peter Fonda and Dennis Hopper (along with Jack Nicholson) as a pair of pot-smoking, anti-authority hippie bikers on a road trip across the American Southwest. Wein had slightly loftier ambitions — he wanted to harness these counterculture energies to help spiritually align the world (and hopefully prepare it to welcome its extraterrestrial "alien brothers").

By all accounts Wein was a charismatic character — either the life of the party or its most annoying attendee (depending on your tastes). He was educated at Harvard and got his break working on films with Warhol in the Factory (after introducing the artist to actress/model and eventual "Warhol superstar" Edie Sedgwick). Wein was fascinated with the occult and cosmic subject matter — as well as the LSD-fueled mind expansions in vogue at the time.

He earned the nickname "The Wizard" because "there was nothing Chuck didn't know about," explains Rainbow Bridge art director Melinda Merryweather in the documentary. "He was psychic, he was an astrologer … he could do all these wonderful magical things," adds script supervisor Bambi Merryweather. Author and rock-scene regular Pamela Des Barres' recounts one particular incident where Wein held court at a party and "called the archangels" into the room — to the amazement of fellow partier Jimi Hendrix.

With Warner's funding secured, Jeffrey turned Wein loose and the director and his team headed to Maui. With no script and only a vague plot (a New York model travels to an occult center on the island), Wein focused his energies on developing a sprawling concept about the "rainbow bridge," which he believed to be the space between the unenlightened and enlightened worlds. He planned an unscripted docu-style approach to filming and needed to find authentic characters — like the motorcycle riders portrayed in Easy Rider — that could naturally channel these spiritual energies on screen.

So Wein invited an eclectic bunch of locals and untrained actors — surfers, hippies, new-age yogis and more — to join the cast, and, taking a cue from Warhol, rolled camera to capture the candid moments as they unfolded. Unsurprisingly, Wein's approach, as seen in Rainbow Bridge, resulted in a near-incoherent mess of new-age mumbo jumbo and acid-drenched philosophy. The director did manage to pull one genius moment out of this mess: Jimi Hendrix's live performance.

The Jimi Hendrix Experience knew they were scheduled to play a concert in Honolulu on August 1, 1970. When they discovered their travel plans placed them in Maui a few weeks earlier they figured they would get to enjoy some much-needed downtime. Their assumptions were incorrect.

"When I first came to Maui they were going to give us 30 days R&R," Cox says in the film. "I did not hear about any movie at all until we got here. And I don't know how much Jimi knew about a movie at all. [Laughs]"

Hendrix and Co. soon found themselves immersed in Wein's project, which was being filmed at Seabury Hall — a private college prep school for girls that was rented while the students were away on break. Wein wanted Hendrix to star in the film, but the musician was a reluctant actor (he briefly appears in a rambling attic scene with the director before emerging from a window to gleefully assassinate a cult-leader character with a rifle).

Desperate to get him more screen time, Wein devised a plan to work a Jimi Hendrix Experience concert into the film. Hendrix agreed and the Rainbow Bridge team scrambled to pull together the generator-powered concert at the Baldwin cattle ranch in Olinda on the foot of the Haleakalā volcano. They decided to make it free, and only promoted it by word of mouth on the day of the show.

Jimi Hendrix. Free concert. Get in the van now!

That's the call to action that a few hundred lucky people received on the streets of Maui on July 30th. Within hours, a random assortment of music fans, surfers and hippies assembled in front of the makeshift wooden stage at the "high energy" Haleakalā location. Wein instructed attendees to sit in sections that corresponded with their astrological signs, because "if Jimi wanted to dip into their energies he had to feel what those energies were," he says in the film.

"It was something kinda strange," Cox recalls. "I couldn't really quite put my finger on it, everyone sitting in astrological order. … and that does have a little energy evidently, because I felt it as soon as we got in…"

With the hippies assembled and cameras rolling, the Jimi Hendrix Experience took the stage — and unleashed a two-set show that included fiery renditions of hits like "Purple Haze," "Foxey Lady" and "Voodoo Child (Slight Return)" along with unreleased songs "Freedom" and "Dolly Dagger."

As was Hendrix's style, the guitarist didn't follow a prescribed song list that day. He just followed his flow, with his bandmates looking to their leader for cues as to what was coming next. "That was intentional …" says drummer Mitch Mitchell in the film, "to get away from what the public wanted or expected to hear."

"Jimi was doing his thing," says Cox. "He did it the way he wanted to do it. … We were free. It was a great concert, in fact one of the greatest concerts we ever did."

"I think he was stretching himself in areas he hadn't been to before," Mitchell adds.

"It wasn't just a regular concert … it was a color-vibratory sound experience. And it was insane," says Melinda Merryweather.

After the Maui show, the Jimi Hendrix experience went on to play Honolulu. Hendrix returned to New York and his Electric Lady Studios and then headed to Europe to plays some shows, including England's Isle of Wight festival. Soon after that performance, Jimmy Hendrix would tragically die in London on September 18th of asphyxiation while under the influence of barbiturates.

When Rainbow Bridge eventually reached theaters it the fall of 1971, it included just 17-minutes of Hendrix's live performance on Maui (for which Mitch Mitchell had to overdub drums at Electric Lady Studios because of wind-related technical problems during the original live recording). The film was widely panned by critics as incoherent self-indulgent hippie gibberish — with the exception of Hendrix's performance. It was unquestionable Rainbow Bridge's only saving grace, a singular moment from a singular artist.

To fulfill Hendrix's commitment to delivering a Rainbow Bridge soundtrack, engineer Eddie Kramer and Mitchell dutifully compiled a collection of songs Hendrix recorded between 1968 and 1970 — including "Dolly Dagger" and "Hey Baby (New Rising Sun)." Jimi Hendrix's Rainbow Bridge was released in October 1971. And while it was well-received, it also puzzled a lot of fans due to the fact that it contained none of Hendrix's performance from the Maui concert that was seen in the film.

Thanks to the work of Experience Hendrix L.L.C (which is owned and operated by members of the Hendrix family) and Legacy Recordings, fans can now hear that fabled concert, in full, on the new Live in Maui album (which was mixed by Hendrix engineer Eddie Kramer and mastered by Bernie Grundman) — as well as see Hendrix live in action in the Music, Money, Madness doc (the Blu-ray version also contains bonus features including all of the existing 16mm color film shot during Hendrix's Maui sets mixed in both stereo and  5.1 surround sound).