CANNED HEAT: LIVE AT TOPANGA CORRAL (1971)
1) Bullfrog Blues; 2) Sweet Sixteen; 3) I'd Rather Be The Devil; 4) Dust My Broom; 5) Wish You Would; 6) When Things Go Wrong.
Another weird discography adventure here. Apparently, Canned Heat still wanted to release a live album that had both Wilson and Vestine on it, and they had the tapes to do it, but there was a catch: after the commercial failure of the previous live album, their label (Liberty Records) had no wish to issue another one, so they took the tapes and claimed that they were from their live shows at Topanga Corral in 1966 and 1967, when they were not yet under contract — when, in fact, the recordings were really made at a 1969 show at the Kaleidoscope in Hollywood. This allowed them to release the album on a different label (Wand Records), at the expense of a little bit of dishonesty, perhaps — but every bit worth the ruse.
The thing is: maybe Harvey Mandel is the better known and the more inventive one of the two guitarists, but Vestine actually belonged in Canned Heat: a straightforward blues guitarist with a rocking heart — with very few special tricks, yet an ability to get to the heart of the matter where Mandel would more often get stuck in a psychedelic haze. You get this exactly one and a half minute into the record, when Vestine takes over from The Bear on ʽBullfrog Bluesʼ and strikes out a solo almost on the same level of fire-and-brimstone as Clapton on the famous Cream version of ʽCrossroadsʼ — too bad the rhythm section is nowhere near Cream in terms of intensity, because Henry is totally in the zone here: fast, fluent, precise, ecstatic, everything you'd need from a generic, but heartfelt fast-paced blues-rocker. Later on, Wilson comes in with his usual «I'm gonna play some simple, pretty, slow riffs and we'll call that a guitar solo, okay?» approach, and Vestine waits with impatience to break out from under The Owl's lead and kick some more ass, and it's really more fun to observe the contrast between Wilson and Vestine than between Wilson and Mandel.
Unfortunately, the album never quite lives up to that explosive start. The old blues covers are either way too predictable (ʽDust My Broomʼ? Not again!), or way too ambitious — it's one thing when they update really old acoustic classics, but the attempt to outdo B. B. King on ʽSweet Sixteenʼ is certainly misguided: Vestine does a good job, yet he cannot even begin to hope to capture all of King's subtle overtones, and it is hard to think of the track as completely detached from its King association. ʽI Wish You Wouldʼ is rather poorly mixed, with the repetitive riff groove rising way over everything else, so, even if there's some nice harmonica playing and another excellent solo from Henry with a razor-sharp tone, eight minutes of constant "cham-CHOOM-cham, cham-cha-CHOOM-cham" is a bit too much (at least the ʽBoogie Chillenʼ riff is aggressive, whereas this one is just nagging). On the other hand, Elmore James' ʽIt Hurts Me Tooʼ (here renamed ʽWhen Things Go Wrongʼ, but nobody's fooling anybody), suddenly recorded with plenty of echo, unexpectedly becomes a feast of plaintive, lyrical solos that take the song way beyond the scope of the original — I think that Wilson is responsive for the weeping, whereas Vestine delivers the angrier solos, and in between the two (and the odd echo that seems to feed Wilson back all of his complaints in a very psychedelic manner), they generate a great feel.
So, kick-ass start, mind-blowing finish, and some nice, unexceptional blueswailing in between — the record pretty much lets you see everything that made Canned Heat so cool in their heyday, and everything that prevented them from becoming a first-rate act both in the short and the long run; in particular, the work of the rhythm section here is fairly pedestrian, and, with all due respect for The Bear, he never ever was that great a singer: he just honestly does his job, but most of the time I just wait for him to move over and let Jimi, uh, I mean, Henry, take over. Still, the highs are high, and the lows are in the middle, so it all works out to a thumbs up in the end.