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Tuesday, July 5, 2016

Canned Heat: Canned Heat

CANNED HEAT: CANNED HEAT (1967)

1) Rollin' And Tumblin'; 2) Bullfrog Blues; 3) Evil Is Going On; 4) Goin' Down Slow; 5) Catfish Blues; 6) Dust My Broom; 7) Help Me; 8) Big Road Blues; 9) The Story Of My Life; 10) The Road Song; 11) Rich Woman.

It is interesting that, despite all the creativity going on in late '66 / early '67, it was precisely that time that also saw the last big wave of «blues purists» before Electric Blues Revival finally gave way to Semi-Original Blues Rock once and for all. In the UK, this period brought about such big figures as Ten Years After and Fleetwood Mac; and on the other side of the Atlantic, arguably the biggest figure to appear on the scene were Canned Heat, the proud Topanga Canyon follow-up to Chicago's Paul Butterfield Blues Band — a bunch of young white amateurs and blues collectors, who'd spent the early Sixties soaking up influences and eventually grew up into admiring imitators, rather organically at that.

The band's first recordings were produced (by Johnny Otis) already in 1966, but they didn't get to release a proper album until they'd met their lucky star at the Monterey Pop Festival and were hailed by some critics as one of the finest blues-based performers of the entire event. Sticking to their guns, they went into the studio to record (or re-record) much of their current repertoire — all covers of blues classics, sometimes reshuffled and spliced together from different ones in the good old folk-blues tradition. A few of the tracks were credited to Canned Heat, but do not be­lieve that for a second — every bit of lyrics and/or melody here is pilfered from them black guys (most of them dead, so they won't need the cash anyway; the ones that were still alive, like Willie Dixon, are properly credited — then again, take pity on starving white kids, too, as they obviously needed themselves some pocket money).

Anyway, Canned Heat's debut is a pretty decent collection of electric blues tunes, but hardly amazing even for the still not-too-demanding standards of early '67. The biggest flaw, which would be diminished, but not eliminated on subsequent albums, is a painful lack of personality: all the members of the band are competent, yet they lack that particular single spark that could set them aside from all the rest. The greatest blues purists of the time had star figures as frontmen or sidemen, people who made it clear that their interpretation carried more significance than the source material itself — Mike Bloomfield in the Butterfield Blues Band, Alvin Lee in Ten Years After, Peter Green in Fleetwood Mac — but Canned Heat, at least in their earliest days, were a pure blues democracy with everyone sitting at the same trench level.

Thus, the band's primary vocalist Bob Hite ("The Bear"), the proud owner of a rough, rowdy voice and a «300 pounds of joy»-type body, is a competent blueswailer, but his limited range and inability to come up with a fresh style of singing leaves no chance for «competence» to cross over into the realm of «awesomeness». Rhythm guitar player Alan Wilson ("The Owl") has not yet begun to mature as a songwriter, and his main talent on this album lies in his harmonica playing: he blows a very mean, dry, creaky harp on ʽGoin' Down Slowʼ and a few other tunes — also, his oddly childish, high and shaky singing (ʽHelp Meʼ) makes a nice contrast with Hite's far more powerful, but far less subtle vocalizing. And lead guitarist Henry Vestine can play some sharp solos every now and then, understanding the value of a good juicy guitar tone and all, but, well, he ain't no (insert the name of your favorite mid-Sixties blues guitarist here, like Clapton or Bloomfield): I really like the things he's doing on ʽThe Story Of My Lifeʼ, but Freddie King could do all of that with his eyes closed — and with even more power.

Because of all that, Canned Heat's self-titled debut is more of a historical curio, just so that you could see how it all started, and check out the many ways in which it is possible to recombine Elmore James, Muddy Waters, Sonny Boy Williamson, Howlin' Wolf, and a half-dozen other blues greats and adapt them for... one's pleasure, really: there's no silly talk here about «making black Chicago blues accessible for white auditories», because those particular auditories for whom Canned Heat were playing were perfectly capable of accessing the original stuff them­selves. No, it's all just for the fun of it — and also for the improved mix and production, because, at the very least, Canned Heat has a far more «modern» sound.

Although Canned Heat were already positioning themselves as a jam band at the time, the debut album is quite cautious in that respect: only ʽCatfish Bluesʼ is stretched out to nearly seven minutes — a mistaken decision, I'd say, because they entrust the entire instrumental section to Vestine, and he delivers a rather disjointed, absent-minded solo without any interesting build-ups or climactic peaks (not to mention that Hite's overdoing his Muddy impersonation). Everything else is thankfully kept in the 3-4 minute ballpark, and I by far prefer the brief, tasteful, polished bottleneck solos on ʽRollin' And Tumblin'ʼ and ʽDust My Broomʼ than the meandering dryness and distortion of the ʽCatfish Bluesʼ jam.

One thing I do not quite understand is the intentional mix-up: for instance, ʽRich Womanʼ, originally credited to Canned Heat and then later re-credited to Dorothy LaBostrie and McKinley Millet, is really ʽI Wish You Wouldʼ by Billy Boy Arnold; and ʽThe Road Songʼ, also credited Canned Heat and then later re-credited to Floyd Jones, is really ʽSmokestack Lightningʼ. Either there must have been some mix-up at the record plant, or they were generously trying to feed some unjustly forgotten blues heroes at the expense of those who'd already gotten their dues. In any case, the titles of these two songs are quite strangely matched to their contents (Side A, on the contrary, seems fixed up fairly well).

Anyway, on the whole I have about as much use for this album as I do for Fleetwood Mac's self-titled debut — maybe even a little less, because Peter Green at least tried from the very begin­ning to use the classic blues idiom to placate his own demons, whereas Canned Heat just sounds like a simple blues party thrown on at a moment's notice by sincere blues aficionados. If they had not gone on to slightly more ambitious projects, the record would probably have sunk beyond any possibility of redeem or recovery.

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