The subject of today’s post on The Immortal Jukebox, Canned Heat, have had many, many incarnations since the first proto form of the band emerged from Topanga Canyon, Los Angeles in 1965. By my reckoning they have had almost 40 different line ups featuring more than 50 musicians and issued dozens of recordings in a career that still continues to this day.
If you are in the area you can see them play at the Southside Shuffle in Port Credit, Ontario, Canada tomorrow night (September12). No doubt a fine time will be had by all.
I have neither the space or the inclination to provide a comprehensive history of their overall career here. Instead, I’m going to concentrate on what I consider to be their golden period, 1967 to 1970, when they released a series of superb records which managed to be both classic blues performances and, Lord be praised! world wide hits.
The sides featured here, ‘On The Road Again’, ‘Going Up The Country’ and, ‘Let’s Work Together’ are respectfully rooted in the blues tradition yet have nothing of the musty museum about them. Rather, they are enchanting recordings which sizzle with optimistic life.
They were created by an outstanding group of musicians whom I will always regards as the definitive Canned Heat line up. They comprised; Bob ‘The Bear’ Hite on vocals, Alan ‘Blind Owl’ Wilson on harmonica, guitar and vocals, Henry ‘Sunflower’ Vestine on guitar, Larry ‘The Mole’ Taylor on bass and, Adolfo ‘Fito’ de la Parra on the drums.
It was the above configuration that recorded the glorious, ‘On The Road Again’ at Liberty Studios in September 1967 for the album, ‘Boogie With Canned Heat’ issued in January 1968 with the edited single version following in late April. I’m featuring the album version here.
I can’t resist saying – isn’t that just hypnotic! The slightly eerie introduction, seeming to evoke the, ‘entre chiens et loups’ fading light of the Mississippi evening, signals that the journey we are about to embark on will take us, on the blue highways, to the strangely familiar yet mysteriously alluring world inhabited by the southern bluesmen.
A world where the endless road, battered as it is by the rain and the snow, offers the only comfort available to a man abandoned to his fate by his dead mother and his erstwhile lover. Now he has no special friend just the relentless road ahead.
Clearly, Al Wilson drew heavily from Tommy Johnson’s, ‘Big Road Blues’ from 1928 and Floyd Jones’, ‘Dark Road’ and, ‘On The Road Again’ from 1951 and 1953 to fashion the Canned Heat recording. However, the triumph here is to have so thoroughly absorbed those recordings and influences that his own treatment goes way beyond homage to become a thrilling new creation that is guaranteed to haunt you.
Canned Heat and Wilson in particular were devotees of the one chord E/G/A droning blues form quintessentially represented on record by the great John Lee Hooker. The Canned Heat rhythm section lock in and drive the song forward while Al Wilson works wonders with his spectral hoot owl harmonica and his ghostly high pitched vocals (owing much to his devotion to Skip James). Add in the colour of the exotic Tambura and you have a record that makes its own imaginative weather.
Al Wilson was I believe the soul of Canned Heat and a very remarkable person. He was a highly intelligent and devout scholar of the blues who had listened and thought deeply about what made it special and how it should be played. He aded an intensity of focus and concentration (owing something perhaps to a personality that was somewhere on the autistic spectrum) which allowed him to make spectacular progress as a singer and instrumentalist from teenage neophyte to a genuine master by his early 20s.Embed from Getty Images
It says something about his marrow deep love and understanding of the blues that it was Al who coaxed the rediscovered Son House to remember how his great pre war recordings should sound and be played.
John Lee Hooker wondered how this skinny white kid from Arlington Massachusetts with the baby face, who could barely see, had developed an ear and a heart for the blues so sympathetically attuned to his own way of playing. Al’s contributions to House’s, ‘Father Of The Delta Blues’ (1965) and, ‘Hooker and Heat’ from 1971 are marvels of empathetic accompaniment.
He was a distinctive singer, fine rhythm guitarist, virtuoso harmonica player and a gifted song arranger. Al Wilson’s death in September 1970 (in circumstances involving barbiturates which will never be fully understood) at the tender age of 27 was an immeasurable loss to music.
Listen to him here displaying all the above qualities on the sunlit, ‘you can’t play it only once’ Woodstock era anthem, ‘Going Up The Country’.
The root of this song lies in, ‘Bull Doze Blues’ (1928) by the almost mythical Texan bluesman/songster Henry Thomas. Al Wilson and Canned Heat catch Thomas’ mixture of sturdy danceability and decorative detail. Thomas often used the quills or panpipes to showcase surprisingly delicate melodies. In the Canned Heat version Jim Horn plays the delightful flute parts.
Many will remember this song being used in the movie of the Woodstock Festival and it has since been used countless times in feature films and adverts seeking to call up nostalgia for the bucolic hippy dreams of the late 60s.
Al Wilson was an early member of the conservation movement and the song perhaps reflects both his love of the redwood forests and his disquiet with the lack of respect paid to the nation’s environmental heritage. The song has sunlight but shadows too (the shadows are more prominent in his song, ‘Poor Moon’).
Henry Vestine’s plays subtly brilliant guitar throughout the track. Vestine (who died in 1997) was a superb lead player who, encouraged by his physicist father, had built up a staggering voluminous collection of blues and other roots music recordings during his teenage years in Takoma Park, Maryland. It was there that he formed a boyhood friendship with another legendary figure in American Music – John Fahey.
Through Fahey and a move to the West Coast he met Al Wilson and Bob Hite (a fellow record collector of heroic proportions – in fact Bob Hite did everything to heroic proportions up to and including his drug intake resulting in his untimely 1981 death). With the addition of supple bassist Larry Taylor (whose credits in addition to Canned Heat include work with the original Monkees, John Mayall and Tom Waits) and endlessly energetic drummer Adolfo de la Parra the classic line up was complete.
But,stormy relations between Henry Vestine and Larry Taylor led to the former’s precipitate departure before the recording of their 4th album. They found a very able replacement for Henry in Harvey Mandel.
It is with Mandel on guitar that Canned heat recorded a massive world wide hit with their stupendous pile driving take on Wilbert Harrison’s, ‘Let’s Work Together’. There’s no point thinking you can sit in your chair while this one plays: like Bob Hite says – ‘Aw come on!’
This is a record that takes no prisoners. The Bear grittily bears down on every word as Harvey Mandel, with Al Wilson and the rhythm section shadowing and supporting him, wails and wails on lead guitar.
This record came out when I was 15 years old and something of a studious cove – but I can tell you I did some mighty, mighty, head banging and air guitar pyrotechnics to this one as I tested out the patience of my parents and neighbours as I pushed my amplifier and speakers to their absolute limits.
Canned Heat have often, not without some merit given their post 1970 career, been caricatured as one more routine boogie band. But, for those few years as the 1960s ended they were one hell of a band who played the blues with respect, good spirit and no little style. They should have an honoured place on every downtown jukebox.
The best Canned Heat collections I am aware of are the extensive ‘Uncanned’ for those who really get with the groove and, ‘Let’s Work Together’ for those who prefer to cut to the chase.
Henry Thomas – the magnificent collection, ‘Texas Worried Blues’ on the Yazoo label would be one of the very few records I would run into a fire to save!
Though Floyd Jones lacked the drive of many of his blues contemporaries he was a smart and serious songwriter and an interesting performer. See the Classics set, ‘Floyd Jones 1948-1953’.
Al Wilson’s death was such a tragedy, yet a fate similar to other performers of that era. But, it makes the music they left behind all the more sweet. Bittersweet. Great post, Thom!
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Thanks a lot Christa. Yes something very bittersweet. Regards Thom.
I just love your breadth of knowledge and your talent as a wordsmith.
I can feel the music just reading your blog!
And I am swept back ‘up the country’ again. thanks.
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Thanks very much Susan – tremendously encouraging! Thom.
Well written Thom. I’ve had the joy of sharing Canned Heat tracks on my blog over the last few years and I’m always nostalgic for the days when they were fresh. I still love them though and don’t think anyone has come close to reproducing their distinctive sound. Hugs
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Thanks David. They really captured something with Al Wilson! Regards Thom
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