Posts Tagged ‘Canned Heat’

Canned Heat

In 1968, psychedelia was exploding and even blues-loving avatars of the era like Cream and Jimi Hendrix were increasingly eschewing their roots in favour of paisley pastures. But one band was perfectly positioned to keep the blues on board for the turned-on generation.

Canned Heat are one of the most beloved live bands of all time. They command a following every bit as dedicated as those Dead Heads who live in vans and follow The Grateful Dead from show to show. Also like the Dead, Canned Heat are one of those bands whose live show changes with the wind. One moment they can be tearing into a full-tilt blues boogie, the other they can shred into a drawn out solo. The only constant is that it’s always amazing.

If you went by the status allotted to them these days, you might assume Canned Heat was just another bunch of hippie-era biker boogie merchants. Nothing could be further from the truth. With prodigiously bearded 300 pound singer Bob “The Bear” Hite and gawky guitar virtuoso Alan “Blind Owl” Wilson up front, the unlikely rock stars were both true scholars and raw-boned practitioners of the blues. Turning up the Heat at crucial cultural watersheds like the Woodstock and Monterey Pop festivals, they brought the blues not only to the flower children but to the mainstream, accomplishing what would previously have been regarded as unthinkable by bringing tunes deeply rooted in 1920s blues to the Top 40.

Bob Hite was a Southern California kid born into music; his mother had been a singer with a big band and his father was a trumpeter. He immersed himself in his parents’ record collection from an early age, quickly branching off to explore his burgeoning love of the blues. Hite would roam far and wide in search of old blues 78’s and eventually amassed thousands of them.

By the time he met up with a recently arrived guitar player from Boston named Alan Wilson in 1965, the hefty, garrulous Hite had fully assimilated all those blues records and become a commanding, charismatic singer in the process. Hite ended up jamming with fellow bluesologist Wilson, who brought along another guitar-playing pal, John Fahey. At the time, Fahey who would go on to change the face of acoustic guitar music—was a UCLA student at work on a paper about Charley Patton. But what was initially intended to be an unplugged jug band quickly headed towards plugging in and turning up, and Fahey made an abrupt exit.

By the time they played their first gig, at storied L.A. folk club the Ash Grove, they were calling themselves Canned Heat, after Tommy Johnson’s 1928 delta blues tune “Canned Heat” Blues

In Johnson’s era, “canned heat” was the term for drinking Sterno cooking fluid for a cheap but dangerous high. The line-up for the group’s debut was Hite on vocals, Wilson on guitar and harmonica, Kenny Edwards of Linda Ronstadt & the Stone Poneys on guitar, Ron Holmes on drums, and Stuart Brotman on bass.

Hite earned his ursine nickname for his imposing size, his hirsuteness, and his growl of a singing voice. His buddy Blind Owl, so dubbed for his extreme near-sightedness, was his perfect foil and could not have been more different than Hite. Where The Bear was larger than life in every sense of the term, Wilson was a troubled, bookish introvert who did his best to disappear into the background at every available opportunity. The fact that he was a preternaturally gifted guitarist, singer, and harp blower, however, tended to complicate this compulsion. The personal and musical push and pull between Blind Owl and The Bear was the engine that made Canned Heat move.

By the time they cut an album’s worth of demos for Liberty Records in ’66, Henry “Sunflower” Vestine was Wilson’s six-string sparring partner and Frank Cook was on drums. The sessions were overseen by legendary bandleader and producer Johnny Otis, who was behind classic singles by the likes of Etta James and Big Mama Thornton, as well as scoring a slew of R&B hits himself. Canned Heat mostly recorded straightforward, convincing takes on blues staples by heroes like Muddy Waters, John Lee Hooker, Elmore James, et al.

The demos were released in 1970 as Vintage after Canned Heat’s star had already risen.

Canned Heat (1967)

Canned Heat is the 1967 debut album by Canned Heat. It was released shortly after their appearance at the Monterey Pop Festival and is a blues cover album. Canned Heat is the 1967 debut album . After bringing in new bassist Larry “The Mole” Taylor, who plays in the band to this day, Canned Heat started working on their debut album, but in the midst of the process, they took part in what many consider the Big Bang of ’60s counterculture, 1967’s Monterey Pop festival. The festival itself and the D.A. Pennebaker-directed documentary that arrived the following year weren’t just the warm-up act for Woodstock; they were most people’s first real glimpse of what the Summer of Love and the blossoming hippie movement looked and sounded like.

1967 – Monterey Pop Festival

This was the festival that broke the band on a big scale. Prior to this, Canned Heat had mainly played smaller gigs around the L.A. underground scene – a scene that was bubbling, and threatening to erupt at the time. Monterey was the eruption. This footage was shot by famed director Pennebaker (who directed Dylan’s legendary ‘Don’t Look Back’ film) and a rave review of their set in popular music rag Down Beat gushed: “Technically, Vestine and Wilson are quite possibly the best two-guitar team in the world and Wilson has certainly become our finest white blues harmonica man.”

The twin shot of this performance and a debut album the following month saw the band quickly rise to fame.

Of course, flanked by flower-power figures like The Mamas & The Papas and Jefferson Airplane, the rough ‘n’ ready Heat looked like they’d just stopped off for a jam in between their shift at the gas station and their biker club meeting. But the raw power in The Bear’s voice and Vestine and Wilson’s guitars as they tore into “Rollin’ and Tumblin’ served notice that raw, real, old-school blues were still an undeniable presence in the new Aquarian age. Sure, the similarly inclined Paul Butterfield Blues Band was present at the festival as well, but they didn’t make the film’s final cut. So it was Hite and company who became the new ambassadors of the blues was released just weeks later, the timing couldn’t have been better. The record was produced by Calvin Carter, who had been the house producer for famed Chicago blues hub Vee-Jay Records, and had worked with Jimmy Reed, John Lee Hooker, Elmore James, and more. With Carter in their corner, Canned Heat turned out a tough, unadorned love letter to their influences on the all-covers album, bringing a fierce-but-faithful take on Howlin’ Wolf, Muddy Waters, Sonny Boy Williamson, et al into white middle-class homes across America.

In October, the band was involved in an incident that moulded their destiny in multiple ways. They were staying at a hotel in Denver, where the local authorities at the time were cracking down hard on the quickly rising hippie drug culture. When Canned Heat—who were just as fond of illicit substances as they looked—rolled into town, the cops had it in for them. The authorities allegedly forced a “friend” of the band to plant pot and hash in their room. Next thing the guys knew, they were facing down a 10-year rap. In desperation their manager Skip Taylor made a deal with Liberty to trade the band’s publishing for their $10,000 bail.

The band’s lawyer pleaded the case down to a misdemeanor, but Taylor’s deal basically meant that no matter how well they did, the band would be financially screwed in perpetuity. And the publicity from the incident cemented the heavy-drugging band’s growing reputation as hard-living outlaws, leading to their embrace by the biker community that was fast becoming the dark side of the era’s underground culture.

Boogie with Canned Heat (1968)

In early ’68, Canned Heat released an album that became a touchstone of the era. “Boogie with Canned Heat” contained mostly original tunes, though the sound was still heavily informed by traditional blues, especially the song that helped ensure the band’s immortality. This is a classic! Recorded in 1968 by reinventors of the blues boogie, Canned Heat made a fantastic record, every track a killer! This is the earliest record by the line-up that was its greatest with Alan Wilson, Bob Hite, Henry Vestine, Larry Taylor, and Fito De La Parra. It has great blues, great boogie, great innovation, and some of the greatest playing you will hear either before or after. Alan Wilson’s harmonica is second to none, the rhythm section comprising Larry Taylor on bass and Fito on drums is tight and brilliant, lead singing by Bob Hite is strong, fun, and inviting, while lead guitar by Henry Vestine is both hypnotic and powerful. Such a great sound that sounds fresh on each and every playing. The CD has six bonus tracks that are really interesting too. This band is still really underrated after all these years but they are brilliant exponents of the blues and have combined the blues with an edgy rock that makes a synthesis that after almost 50 years has not been bettered. Brilliant!”

“On the Road Again” was based on the 1953 tune of the same name by Chicago bluesman Floyd Jones (which in turn was an adaptation of the 1928 delta blues song Big Road Blues by Tommy Johnson. Blind Owl turned it into a moody, hypnotic cut that blended deep blues with Indian modality and a trippy, psychedelic feel that somehow meshed organically with the track’s intense earthiness. The Heat’s new drummer, Adolfo “Fito” de la Parra—a Mexican new to L.A. who would be the only mainstay in the line up for the rest of the band’s career added a sensual, almost primal pulse that spoke directly to the body. Wilson’s ghostly vocal embodied the sense of alienation the troubled guitarist suffered from, creating an ethereal vibe that provided a magical contrast with the visceral groove. Ironically, the song was the b-side of the “Boogie Music” single, but somewhere along the line somebody decided to flip the 45 over. “On the Road” ended up exploding across the globe, bringing the band to the upper rungs of the pop charts in America and all over Europe. Canned Heat toured the continent and made appearances on European TV. The boys from L.A. helped give new life to the blues around the world.

Living the Blues (1968)

But the band’s next album contained another Wilson-led track that would raise Canned Heat’s profile even further. Released in autumn of 1968, “Living the Blues” included the sunny-sounding “Goin’ Up the Country” the band’s reboot of the 1920s tune Bull-Doze Blues by Henry Thomas, with new lyrics by Wilson. Not only did the song become an even bigger international hit than “On the Road Again,” it ended up turning the band into countercultural standard-bearers.

“Fantastic set from the Heat. This album shines in the recordings of Canned Heat. Great songs absolutely great musicianship. The star of the set is “Going Up the Country” a song which is in the American lexicon of TV commercials now. But Bob Hite’s song “Sandy’s Blues” is an absolutely stunning tune. “Walking By Myself” is another tune which is super, and one covered by Gary Moore much later. “Parthenogenesis” is a long cut, divided into nine parts highlighted by Alan Wilson’s harmonica and jaw-harp, John Mayall’s great piano and Henry Vestine’s great guitar. This song gives the Heat a chance to get a little psychedelic. Disc two consists of two tracks “Refried Boogie (Part I) and Refried Boogie (Part II)” which allows the Heat to play extended jams, Fito’s drum solo is great. Worth snapping up if you’re a Boogie fan!”

1969 Woodstock

Shortly after replacing Vestine—whose drug problems had become too much even for Canned Heat—with Harvey Mandel, the band played at the Woodstock festival in August of ’69. Though the band’s actual performance wasn’t included in Michael Wadliegh’s landmark 1970 documentary of the epochal event, allegedly on account of record company politics (it turned up years later in the director’s cut and an outtakes collection), the studio version of “Goin’ Up the Country” appeared in the film as the soundtrack to a montage of happy hippie revelers. The placement, dovetailing with the tune’s sprightly flute hook and child-of-nature lyrics, made the grungy bad-boy crew (with Wilson admittedly being the relative naif) unlikely avatars of the hippie era forevermore.

The band’s biggest hit, at the most famous festival of all time. Woodstock is often used as a shorthand to describe the merging of youth culture, drugs, music, sunshine and the optimistic attitude rushing through the late ’60s. Canned Heat’s blistering, narcotic rendition of ‘On The Road Again’ was the perfect soundtrack to an era of wide open roads and limitless possibilities.

“John Lee Hooker and Canned Heat” In the spring of 1970, Mandel and Taylor left the band, and Vestine resumed his old spot. With new bassist Antonio de la Barreda on board, Canned Heat fulfilled their blues-fan dreams by making an album with John Lee Hooker. The Hook, for his part, was quite impressed with the Heat, heaping particular praise on Wilson for his harmonica work. Hooker ‘n Heat, which would be released early the following year, wasn’t the band’s only meeting with their musical heroes.

In 1968 they worked with Chicago blues master Sunnyland Slim on ‘Slim’s Got His Thing Goin’ On’. In 1970 they joined with Memphis Slim on the sessions for what would be released four years later as “Memphis Heat” And in ’73, they worked on Clarence “Gatemouth” Brown’s “Gate’s on the Heat” album. And before he had even moved to L.A., Wilson had already helped aging, tremor-ridden delta blues legend Son House relearn his old repertoire so he could cut his 1965 comeback album, ‘Father of the Folk Blues’, which featured Wilson’s accompaniment on a couple of cuts.

 Future Blues (1970)

Canned Heat released a new album of their own in August of 1970. ‘Future Blues’ was recorded with the band’s previous line-up, and would mark their last sessions with Wilson. “Let’s Work Together” a cover of a recent tune by ’50s R&B hero Wilbert Harrison, became the Heat’s third and final U.S. Top 40 hit, but in characteristic fashion, the band held off on the song’s release as a single until after Harrison’s own version had its run.

“Let’s hear it for “Future of the Blues”. This is a fine blues album, probably better than Boogie With Canned Heat; and a little surprising Harvey Mandel did not play (guitar) with the band longer. “Sunflower” Vestine would return for the next Canned Heat album.
The band’s best post-Woodstock studio album,1970’s “Future Blues” also marked a commercial peak of sorts. Their hit single remake of Wilbert Harrison’s Let’s Work Together (a chart hit for him the previous year) drove the original LP’s successful chart run and probably exposed these FM radio stalwarts to a wider audience due to the single’s Top 40 airplay. The album seems more focused and less boogie-fied than prior Canned Heat efforts, and that’s not necessarily a bad thing. This reissue features five most interesting bonus tracks, including the tighter mono single version of Let’s Work Together.

Around this time, the deeply depressive Wilson’s inner struggles deepened to the point where he made a couple of unsuccessful suicide bids. He spent some time convalescing in a mental hospital and re-joined the band when he got out, but the dark cloud following him around did not lighten. In September the band was scheduled to depart for a tour of Europe, but Wilson went missing, which Hite subsequently noted was not unusual for the moody, mysterious guitarist.

This video quality isn’t the best, but this is an important historical document — albeit a bittersweet one — as it is the last known footage of co-founder and singer Alan “Blind Owl” Wilson. He died just over a month after this concert was recorded. Here he sings his great composition, ‘Human Condition’ Live in Kralingen

The rest of the band was forced to fly ahead without him, and on September 3rd, Skip Taylor found Wilson dead of a barbiturate overdose. The consensus was that the incident was intentional. Blind Owl became the first American rock star in the ill-fated “27 Club” of artists who passed unnaturally at that age. Janis Joplin and Jimi Hendrix would join the ill-starred club within weeks, and Jim Morrison the following year.

Live at Montreux 1973
Canned Heat wasn’t taken down by the loss of one of their main creative forces. They continued on with new guitarist Joel Scott Hill and released 1971’s ‘Historical Figures and Ancient Heads’. In the years to come, the band would see a dizzying swirl of personnel changes, though they went on to make some worthy records and remained a vital live unit, as seen on the 1973 Live at Montreux concert video. But on April 5th, 1981, The Bear—who never backed off from his hard-living ways—died after allegedly mistaking a vial of heroin for cocaine. Hite had escaped the “27 Club” but he was still just 38. Some genius has uploaded an entire 1973 Stockholm concert , and the band have adapted well to the shock loss of their vocalist Alan Wilson, adding guns James Shane and Ed Beyer. The band were firing on all cylinders here, sharpened by years on the road.

Ever since Hite’s passing, de la Parra has kept the band going, with a multitude of line-ups that would eventually include a returned Larry Taylor and Harvey Mandel. Canned Heat made several post-Hite albums and toured endlessly; they can still be found out on the road today. Their long time drummer ended up telling much of the band’s tumultuous story in his memoir “Canned Heat: Living the Blues”.

Between Canned Heat’s heady heights and desperate lows, their tale could easily be the stuff of sensationalistic rock biopics. But the important thing to keep in mind, half a decade after some of the band’s biggest accomplishments, is how much they did for the blues. Before British bands like Led Zeppelin began making big coin with their amped-up, chest-beating take on the tradition and shafting some of the originators in the process, Alan Wilson’s spectral, Skip James-like moan and stinging slide guitar and Bob Hite’s Big Joe Turner-on-a-Harley vibe breathed loving new life into America’s musical birthright when it was most in need.

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Gutbucket (An Underworld Eruption) is a 1969 sampler album released to promote artists on the Liberty Records label. It was followed later in 1969 by Son of Gutbucket.

Back in 1969 Liberty Records released two compilation albums: ‘Gutbucket (An Underworld Eruption) and ‘Son of Gutbucket’, that featured artists on it’s roster. These included the likes of Captain Beefheart, Alexis Korner, Canned Heat, The Groundhogs, Creedence Clearwater Revival, Roy Harper and Aynsley Dunbar to name just a few of them. The albums were recognisable from the pigs on the cover and something of a DIY looking aesthetic (although Liberty was an imprint of a major label, Transamerica).

Side 1

  1. “Gimme Dat Harp Boy” – Captain Beefheart and His Magic Band – from the LP Strictly Personal
  2. “The Wall” – Hapshash and the Coloured Coat – from the LP The Western Flier
  3. “You’re Gonna Miss Me” – Lightnin’ Hopkins – from the LP Earth Blues
  4. “I’m Tore Down” – Alexis Korner – from the LP A New Generation of Blues
  5. “Still a Fool” – The Groundhogs – from the LP Scratching the Surface
  6. “Dismal Swamp” – Nitty Gritty Dirt Band – from the LP Pure Dirt
  7. “Wine, Women & Whisky” – Papa Lightfoot – from the LP Rural Blues Vol 2

Side two

  1. “Pony Blues” – Canned Heat – from the LP Living the Blues
  2. “Down in Texas” – The Hour Glass – from the LP The Hour Glass
  3. “No More Doggin’” – Tony McPhee – from the LP Me And The Devil
  4. “Can Blue Men Sing the Whites” – The Bonzo Dog Band – from the LP The Doughnut in Granny’s Greenhouse
  5. “Mamma Don’t Like Me Runnin Around” – Big Joe Williams – from the LP Hand Me Down My Old Walking Stick
  6. “Rollin’ And Tumblin’” – Jo-Anne Kelly – from the LP Me And The Devil
  7. “Call Me Woman” – Aynsley Dunbar Retaliation – from the LP Dr. Dunbar’s Prescription