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Kiss the Sky: 'Experience Hendrix' Tour Celebrates the Life and Legacy of that Most legendary Guitarist

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For decades now, guitarists of all ilk have referenced Jimi Hendrix most often as the alpha and omega of the instrument. They've got a point.

Since the initial summer 1995 Jimi Hendrix Electric Guitar Festival in Seattle, the Experience Hendrix Tour has grown exponentially, reeling in musicians from across the rock, blues and jazz spectra. Each year, contemporary guitar legends line up to pay homage to an idol.

"His playing is so hip and modern, even right now," guitarist Ana Popovic says. "I remember being a kid watching his videos and the way he played onstage. The energy he had going on with his three-piece is something that is still an inspiration for me. It's almost like when you watch him, he's somewhere else. He's not on that stage. It's that unconditional feeling where you're one with your instrument and one with your band."

Popovic, phoning in from the road to chat about the tour, is joining the tour this year for the first time. The opportunity is heavenly for anyone who runs in musical circles. She found she couldn't pass it up. "The line-up is just unbelievable. I'm happy to step out of the blues world for a little while too," she says.

Artists on the April 2 Hard Rock Rocksino bill include Billy Cox, Buddy Guy, Jonny Lang, Kenny Wayne Shepherd, Bootsy Collins, Dweezil Zappa, Brad Whitford, Eric Johnson, Doyle Bramhall II, Chris Layton, Eric Gales, Ana Popovic, Mato Nanji, Henri Brown, Dani Robinson and Stan Skibby. There are blues guys, jazz guys, fusion guys and, as Popovic explains, "There's only one guy who can unite them all, and that's Jimi, obviously."

The range of musicians appearing on the bill mirror Hendrix's own capacity for melding various traditions together. For example, Shepherd and Lang bring out the blues that's inherent in so much of Hendrix's catalog. Zakk Wylde, who has appeared on earlier shows (but won't be showing up in Cleveland), has ripped the face off tunes like "Purple Haze," infecting Hendrix classics with a metal edge.

Recent set lists feature the likes of "Stone Free," "May This Be Love," "I Don't Live Today" and "Hey Joe," among many others. Popovic says she's hoping to highlight some of Hendrix's lesser-known works, like "Belly Button Window" and "Can You See Me." She says there's a very enticing power in his music and his words. Hendrix's craft was always unique, always drawing from some other artistic plane.

"His lyrics are very different from anyone else, kinda like [Bob] Dylan. He studied Dylan on a daily basis," she says.

Deep dives into the Hendrix catalog reveal as much. "The Wind Cries Mary," for instance, is as evocative a tune as any from his era. And the bluesy chord progressions Hendrix strums illustrate the introspective and metaphoric scene he's painting with those words.

For Popovic, the mystique of those sounds and images has been with her throughout her entire life. She grew up in Belgrade, Serbia, where Western blues surrounded her childhood. It may sound unlikely, but the blues became the most natural part of life for her. She says she began listening to blues when she was around 2 or 3: Albert King, Stevie Ray Vaughan, Robert Johnson — all of these musicians colored her youth. "I was in love with that music, and my father had a lot of jam sessions at our home. That's what I grew up seeing," she says. Of course, Hendrix was similarly there through it all.

She played guitar now and then while growing up, but it wasn't until 18 that she formed a band (Hush) and played more seriously. At 22, she moved to Holland to study jazz. To this day, roots music remains with her at all times.

From 1999 onward, Popovic has embarked on a critically acclaimed solo career. She's worked all fundamental angles of the guitar, landing most frequently on the blues.

Coming off a funk-centric album release last year (Can You Stand the Heat), Popovic is amped to join the Experience Hendrix gang. She officially joined the line-up after press time, at the March 23 Wilkes-Barre, Pa., show. It's a sure bet that she'll bring a different voice to the line-up altogether, via both song choice and influence.

She points out the interesting fact that she's not only the sole woman on the tour this year, but one of just a few women ever to play the bill. That speaks to a broader argument about rock music in general and its rather consistent lack of female players.

"Definitely there should be more ladies connected to this," Popovic says. "I do want to represent. If I have to represent the females, I'll do it. This is a big test. This is a guitar player's audience, where we get to show off that women can also stand the heat and where the women can play among these great guitar players. I'll do my best to prove that."

It's Hendrix's own adopted sister, Janie Hendrix, who helms the tour's operations. Her goal remains to see her late brother's legacy carried forward, impacting as many younger musicians as possible.

But what is it, really, about Hendrix's playing that so captivates the world all these years after his death?

Part of it, Popovic says, is the grand mystery of him as an artist. He died at 27, leaving behind a four-year flash of larger-than-life music. He played at a time when racial barriers still very much existed, and he did what he could to kick them down with pure talent. He crafted new styles of playing, all of which have been imitated by countless musicians since then. And there's the eye-catchingly interesting highlight reel: playing a right-handed guitar upside-down and strung for a lefty, lighting his ax on fire at the Monterey Pop Festival, jamming electronic effects into every nook and cranny of his live performance.

Shepherd, a mainstay on many of incarnations of the Experience Hendrix tour, says Hendrix's influence on all musicians is inescapable: "He didn't observe any boundaries musically. He was an amazing player and a tremendous showman, so I incorporated some of his showmanship in what I do."

Our very own Rock and Roll Hall of Fame labels Hendrix "arguably the greatest instrumentalist in the history of rock music." After just a few albums and a smattering of stellar international hits, Hendrix was the highest-paid performer in the world by the time he arrived at the headlining slot at Woodstock in 1969.

His brief, ascendant time on this planet showed fans of rock music that the guitar could be used as a destroyer of worlds. Hendrix vaulted the six-string instrument to the front and center of recordings, showing even the most casual listeners that there was something important in what could be done with a guitar.

The Experience Hendrix tour routinely sells out amphitheaters across the country. Much of the crowd at these shows comprises guitar aficionados and players. But fans of all kinds of music are able to gravitate toward at least some — if not all — elements of Hendrix's playing. There truly is something for everyone in his catalog.

What's left now, decades removed from Hendrix's untimely death, is an ever-expanding, multi-tiered generation of new musicians, all eager to catch the same massive wave first ridden so long ago.

Experience Hendrix, 7:30 p.m. Wednesday, April 2, Hard Rock Live, 10777 Northfield Rd., Northfield, 330-908-7625. Tickets:

$65-$82.50, hardrock.com.

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