Saturday, 23 March 2013
MUSIC REVIEW: CANNED HEAT -LIVING IN THE PAST and UNDER DUTCH SKIES 1970-74
Canned Heat have been on the road for decades. Or rather versions of the band have. My agrument in this review is that the original band and the only one worthy of the name died when co-founder member Alan Wilson (above, left) died.
I now have three albums of theirs, those named above and the superb and definitive (accept no others) compilation Uncanned which has an excellent accompanying booklet, packed discs of all their best known material plus oddities and unreleased stuff.
The vocals were shared by Bob 'The Bear' Hite (he was big and hairy) and Alan 'Blind Owl' Wilson (who couldn't recognise a friend from two feet away without his glasses and I know exactly what that feels like). Hite's voice was gruff and bluesy the way you'd expect a big hairy monster to sing like when fronting a blues band. But Wilson had a very high falsetto, was a talented slide guitarist, but a fucking brilliant harp (as in harmonica, but you knew that already) player. Had he lived past 27 he'd probably be acclaimed as one of the world's greatest ever harp players. His fills when accompanying John Lee Hooker on the superb album Hooker'n'Heat sends chills down my spine.
A double vinyl album released in late 1968, it's now on a 2-disc CD. Unlike the original vinyl, this allows you to listen to both sides of the live 40 minute Refried Boogie Parts 1 & 2 without have to leave your chair, unless it's to run screaming out of the room. Only joking; it's actually better than I was expecting, but I'll get onto their endless boogie later.
The first seven tracks (side one) are a mix of blues covers, rewritten blues standards, and originals and in general it's pretty good. It opens with a good version of Pony Blues sung by Hite which is followed by My Mistake an original and haunting song written and sung by Wilson to terrific effect. Also included is their massive hit Going Up The Country. It's all very solid enjoyable stuff.
Parthenogenesis, the final track (side 2 of the vinyl), is 20 minutes long and one of the most astonishing pieces of music to come out of the 60's rock and blues bands. Consisting of nine segments, it's mostly instrumental and begins with a couple of pieces with Wilson on jaw's harp (the polite name for the jew's harp) which are dark moody sonic pieces concluding with and unbelievable version of Rollin' and Tumblin'. Wilson's up front again with a jaunty piece where he overdubs his harp playing four times and accompanies himself on guitar. Then there's Hite singing accompanied by John Mayall on piano. Swiftly passing over the drum solo, Henry Vestine overdubs his lead guitar five times for a slow feedback-laden piece which segues into a melancholy instrumental with Wilson's expressive chromatic harp accompanied by a sitar. The penultimate track is the full band playing behind Vestine's Albert Collins-styled lead guitar and it all ends where it began with Alan Wilson's atmospheric jaw's harp. The whole thing is just amazing as it shows how much subtlety and variety the band could play with and how they could go places you'd never expect. Much to my surprise, it isn't the pretentious load of crap it's been accused of but is in fact highly accomplished and I just love it.
Less than two years later Alan Wilson was dead and Canned Heat just wasn't Canned Heat any more. What you had left was this.
Canned Heat had always been known for their raucous adaption of John Lee Hooker's boogie which is fine and had its place but it wasn't all they were known for by a long long way. With the moderating influence of the immensely talented Wilson, they displayed a versatility and musical accomplishment. Wilson added the light and shade, a diversity of styles. Without him there was nothing but unsubtle renderings of blues-rock and boogie, endless, endless boogie.