Jonny Lang is one of the touring guitarists with the 2010 Experience… (Steven C. Pesant, Handout…)
Jonny Lang hadn't even been conceived when Jimi Hendrix died. By the time he was learning to play guitar, he'd missed the countercultural icon by more than 20 years. Singer Susan Tedeschi was born about two months after Hendrix died in 1970.
Today, they're both accomplished musicians, with several Grammy nominations to their credit (even a win, for Lang). But on Thursday at the Hippodrome Theatre, they won't be playing their songs. They'll be playing Hendrix's.
Lang and Tedeschi are two of the performers on the Experience Hendrix tour, a traveling revue-style concert that gathers some of the country's better-known musicians to perform two hours of Hendrix's catalog. Brad Whitford of Aerosmith will be there, as will David Hidalgo of Los Lobos, veteran guitarists Ernie Isley and Steve Vai, and metal band Living Colour, among others.
It's part tribute show and part VH1 "Divas Live!" but with Gibsons and Fenders instead of Arethas or Mariahs. For fans, the tribute show can be bittersweet. No matter how much heart the players put into their performances, they'll never approximate the real thing. But Tedeschi and Lang said the appeal here is their reinterpretation of songs like "Voodoo Child" and "Foxy Lady," which are still ahead of their time, 40 years after Hendrix's death.
"It's not just one band playing all the tunes," Tedeschi said. "You have all these major artists playing his tunes. Everyone's coming from a different angle of guitar-playing."
Hendrix would have turned 68 this year, and interest in him has yet to drop off. This year, Da Capo Press published "Becoming Jimi Hendrix," a biography tracing his rise to fame. Posters of him still hang in college dorm rooms nationwide.
In the DVD of Hendrix's last tour, bassist Billy Cox said there are only two types of guitarists: "Those who will admit to being influenced by Jimi Hendrix, and those who will not."
The Experience Hendrix tour, organized by Hendrix's estate, has played a role in keeping the guitarist's memory alive; the first all-star tour was organized in 2004.
Reinterpreting the songs is a way to keep the music fresh for people who've been listening to it for years. , But it's also a necessity: It would be foolish to tru to replicate Hendrix's performances.
"I can't imagine what it must have been like, listening to standard rock, and then he comes along, scrambling everyone's brains," Lang said. "I think he continues to be the chief innovator of the electric guitar."
When he started learning the instrument, Lang, 29, was listening to Stone Temple Pilots and Nirvana. The guitarists who influenced him were bluesmen Albert Collins and B.B. King. It wasn't until he tried Hendrix that he understood his impact.
"I always knew he was kind of an icon, but when I started playing guitar and tried to emulate him, I found out why he was really an icon," Lang said. "It's extremely difficult to do. Every time I try to learn a song, I'm just in awe. His sensibility in every area comes so naturally to him, where it doesn't for most musicians."
Tedeschi, who's been involved with the tour for two years, said what made Hendrix so difficult was the layering in his music.
"When you're listening to him, what you don't realize is that he'd overdub it four or five times. There's no way to play all of that live," she said. "When you cover one of his songs, you have to play the strongest rhythms."
For the musicians, the challenge is part of the appeal.
In Pittsburgh, on the first night of the second leg of the tour, they all brought their own take on some of those classics.
Lang, Whitford and drummer Chris Layton, who played with Stevie Ray Vaughan, performed "The Wind Cries Mary" and "Spanish Castle Magic." And in a powerful follow-up, Wayne Shepherd and Layton continued with "Come On" and "Voodoo Child."
Tedeschi approaches Hendrix's music as a blues musician.
"I think of Jimi as a blues roots artist, and I'm going to play it more bluesy than some of the others," she said. "I don't sing like him, and I don't play like him. I don't cop every lick. But I stay true to the arrangement and sing it like I would sing it."
Lang, who'll play "The Wind Cries Mary" and "Spanish Castle Magic" in Baltimore, will also do it his own way.
"I'm just in a place of trying to honor it, just trying not to have an ego about it, and play it like I would play it," he said. "That's how everybody's doing it because I just haven't seen anybody do it the way he did it."
If you go
Experience Hendrix plays Thursday at the Hippodrome Theatre at the France-Merrick Performing Arts Center, 121 N. Eutaw St. Doors open at 8 p.m. Tickets, $50-$125, are sold at the box office, ticketmaster.com or by calling 800-551-SEAT.