Canned Heat, 1969, is one hell of a band. The rhythm section has never sounded better; Larry Taylor and Fito de la Parra give the music drive without all the busy stuff you hear from the British blues groups. Henry Vestine is in top form, enhancing his distinction as the only major white-blues guitarist who plays single-string solos that don’t sound like some black man named King. Alan Wilson, the most highly-skilled mouth-harp player in rock, opens up some new frontiers for the instrument, and both he and Bob Hite sing movingly. Their manager, Skip Taylor, has produced them superbly. The recording has clarity, and balls as well. Even the cover painting is great.
A track called “Canned Heat” fulfills all the expectations we bluesfreaks ever had about this band. Wilson holds forth on one speaker, hammering out peerless Delta rhythm, while Vestine flies freely from the other. The Bear sings most impressively, turning the old lyrics around a bit to make them express, touchingly, what Canned Heat (the band, not the Sterno) has done for his life.
Alan Wilson, whose arrangements have a way of drawing on all the musics of the world (he worked up “On The Road Again”) while still coming out blues. contributes four tracks. The best is “Change My Ways,” which combines a delicate, almost exquisite vocal line with a hard-blues feel, and makes it work. We quickly forget the cliches hammered out by all the Led Zeppelins of the world, and get into a whole new, uncharted area of rock music. Yet it’s still a blues. Things like that make Canned Heat easily the most original of all our blues bands.
Then there’s the piece de resistance, “Sic ‘Em Pigs.” Like Booker White’s original, “Sic ‘Em Dogs On You.” this is about police harassment. The Heat strike back at the heat with deliciously sarcastic lyrics and marvelous sound effects.
My typewriter gushes well-deserved superlatives. “I’m Her Man” is quite the equal of the above three. And yet I suddenly realize that Hallelujah! doesn’t quite pack the wallop it ought to. Some of the tunes have discernible shortcomings. The first half of “Get Off My Back” is exciting as we go from a wonderfully ominous vocal to a solo by Vestine that starts beautifully, but gets bogged down beyond recovery through a series of tempo changes. The group’s attempt to play a jazz waltz, “Huautla,” is awfully clumsy. “Down in the Gutter but Free” is a jam session on which Vestine and Taylor trade instruments; the novelty quickly palls. “Same All Over” and “Big Fat” are played with compelling precision, but the material is pedestrian.
And so Hallelujah! suffers from that most common fault of rock albums, unevenness. One wants to dig a little deeper and figure out why, because the potential is so enormous. The success of these five superior musicians as a group depends on a unique paradox: Canned Heat the super-traditional, super-heavy Delta blues band, spearheaded in live performances by Hite’s gorgeous grossness, versus Canned Heat the super-innovators, creators of such adventures as “On the Road Again.”
On their double LP Living the Blues they went all-out in both directions—”Refried Boogie” vs. “Parthenogenesis.” Here they try for a happy medium, and about half the time, they succeed—not a bad average, really. But even the best numbers on Hallelujah! lack some of the spontaneity they had on the Boogie album, cut in late 1967, when they were brash and fearless. Now that they’re successful, I fear they’re holding themselves back a little, being too careful. That’s one thing the Heat just can’t afford to do much longer. (RS 40)
Barret Hansen – © Copyright 2000 Rolling Stone.com
Canned Heat was one of the most remarkable Blues Bands in the 60’s era. Basically an electrified Country Blues and Boogie band, they created two pop hits that were arguably a direct descendant of the old Skip James vocal style.
Now don’t get me wrong, when I say “pop” hits, I don’t mean they made any commercial concessions like strings or anything. Both of the songs, “On The Road Again”, and “Goin’ Up The Country” were both compelling and progressive blues arrangements.
Like many great bands, Canned Heat could be two different bands depending on who was singing and leading the arrangement, and when the lead guitarist, Henry Vestine played a solo, sometimes a third one that flew off into an abstract psychedelic Delta.
The two singers were Bob Hite and Alan Wilson. When Bob was on, the band was a hard rocking Blues band that often did rock and roll. With Alan, an electric country blues band that featured his great falsetto (similiar to Skip James) and often mysterious sounding slide (one could say Faheyesque). He was also probably one of the most underrated harp players of all time.
Canned Heat records could be uneven, particularly their first, and that was more due to unfamiliarity to the studio. Live, they were as hot (and sloppy) as a blues band could get. Listen to their live version of “Bullfrog Blues” on the Monterrey Pop Festival soundtrack and you’ll see what I mean.
Their next one, “Boogie With Canned Heat”, showed the needed adjustments, and also produced their first hit, “On The Road Again”. It’s a good blues record, and featured their first extended boogie (and still their best), “Fried Hockey Boogie”.
A later release also took boogie to the utmost 60’s extreme and built from an acoustic start to full tilt over two entire sides of a double record set. It’s not easily found these days, but worth a listen, as it also contains their next hit, “Goin’ Up The Country” which added a flute to the boogie (one wonders why it hadn’t been done before, it sounds so perfect).
Later on, a series of rather quick records appeared, like their “Live In Europe”, a poorly recorded one that I’m not sure they wanted released. However, it’s not my purpose to discuss such recordings, as they did produce more than a few good sets.
One of those was “Hallelujah” released on their own Liberty label. It didn’t contain any of their hits, but as an album, it’s the most consistent except for maybe the “Future Blues” release.
“Hallelujah” is basically one great blues song after another, in an impressively eclectic set. It opens with a classic sing-along blues shuffle, “Same All Over”, featuring one of the best Hite vocals ever. It’s an opener that sticks in your mind long after listening.
Hite isn’t the one the average fan associates with the band as he didn’t sing on either of the two earlier hits, although later on he sang the hit cover of “Work Together”. However, without him, the band wouldn’t have had nearly the depth it had. Bob was the gruff, low voice, with an obvious sense of humor and plenty of grit. A perfect balance to Alan’s higher pitched vocal style. It’s his voice that makes “Same All Over” more than your average shuffle.
Wilson pipes in next with the uptempo, and eerie “Change My Ways”, a complex boogie with a sense of dynamics one doesn’t normally see in, say, a Chicago outfit. It’s also a total change in mood. It opens with a great organ and drum opening, then moves into what would be a prototypical Wilson boogie, with interesting tempo changes and bridges (the hallmarks of a classic Wilson number).
These interesting arrangements were due to the diverse blues both Hite and Wilson had been exposed to. Hite was a legendary blues record collector, with one of the most extensive collections ever, and Wilson did a few projects with John Fahey, playing slide on some early Fahey releases (“Transfiguration Of Blind Joe Death” being one). One can discern a Fahey influence in his slide approach.
Hite follows Alan with “Canned Heat”, which is similiar to “Canned Heat” by Houston Stackhouse. It’s a slower song, but with a very interesting sense of tempo. Almost atmospheric, or at least as much as an old blues song can be.
“Sic ‘Em Pigs” boogies in next, and it’s a still hilarious boogie that perhaps sounds dated in it’s anti-police message, that given the Rodney King incident, is still timely. It’s a song that could have become a bit self-righteous in tone, but Hite gives it just the perfect amount of sarcasm and humor to make it work. It’s a song I can’t imagine anyone else doing so perfectly, actually.
The side continues with a hard charging shuffle called, “I’m Her Man”, which also features piano and organ by Mark Naftalin. The Heat rhythm section, Larry Taylor on bass and Fito de la Parra, drive this arrangement hard, yet never break into rock. As a result, it’s a shuffle that cooks, spiced up with some great leads by Vestine.
Alan ends the side with “Time Was”, a slower number that has a good sense of movement, with some good tempo changes. Once again, a good number made great by a great band.
“Do Not Enter” opens side two, and it’s a viciously powerful, rocking medium tempo blues, sort of like angry Bo Diddley. Wilson’s harp tone is incredibly full, and while he didn’t specialize in the instrument, was always more than your average harp player. His ideas tended to stress tone and feel as opposed to speed, and one thing you could always say about a Wilson solo; it always sounded just right.
Wilson’s harp opens the next cut, “Big Fat”, an old Domino song. If there was one singer who could do a Fats number, it was Hite, and it’s done here as a great rocking shuffle.
A waltz time “Huautla” follows, opening with Wilson’s harp, and moving into a group jam, done over a bongo and conga beat. It sounds much better than it reads, believe me. It then moves back into waltz time, and ends.
A strange Wilson rocker comes next, with Chuck Berry guitar being mixed with a blues shuffle, and like most Wilson numbers, comes together in a way that’s always hard to describe, except that he clearly knew what he was doing and was able to reconcile the influences. The number ends with some hard rocking soloing by Vestine.
I should mention a bit about Vestine at this point. He was one of the wildest guitar players in the blues, earning the tongue-in-cheek remark by Hite in “Fried Hockey Boogie”, which ran “Are you really experienced?” in an obvious reference to Hendrix.
One might think that Vestine was actually a rock player who played the blues with the band as any other gig, but his blues credentials ran quite deep. He, along with John Fahey (and another whose name escapes me) were the ones who tracked down Skip James and brought him out of retirement in the 60’s folk era. Also, many of his solos were extrapolations on blues tonalities, albeit loud extrapolations.
Also, in the regular blues arrangements, his guitar playing was always on target. You don’t hear his name very often when great blues guitar players are discussed, but in my mind, it was arguable that at a minimum, he was very underrated.
Larry Taylor went on to play bass in many sessions for other artists, the most notable being part of John Mayall’s “Turning Point” era band. Also, he did work for artists as diverse as Leo Kottke and Freddie Roulette. His partner in the rhythm section, Fito, never got famous outside of the band, but then, he was already in a famous blues band, and I guess that’s all anyone really needs, right?
Well, I have digressed a bit, but it seemed like a good time for a band intro…
The record ends with the band, with the addition of Mark Naftalin on keyboards, playing a very low down slow blues called, “Down In The Gutter, But Free”. It’s a great one, and just a bit overdone, like all good lowdown slow blues should be done.
Copyright 1996 by Al Handa – firstname.lastname@example.org
(Source: DELTA SNAKE BLUES NEWS May 1996 – Vol 3, No.3)