CANNED HEAT: BLUES BAND (1997)
1) Stranger; 2) Quiet Woman; 3) Iron Horse; 4) Jr.'s Shuffle; 5) Creole Queen; 6) Keep It To Yourself; 7) Boogie Music; 8) Goin' Up The Country; 9) See These Tears; 10) One Kind Favour; 11) Oh Baby; 12) Gorgo Boogie.
We're going to speed up a bit with these ever-closer-to-our-days reviews, considering that with each new album, there's less and less Canned Heat and more and more stereotypical modern blues rock playing — the kind that sounds great together with some pulled pork and gumbo in B. B. King's Blues Club on a relaxed New York weekend, but has little use in anybody's record collection, apart from the most diligent blues aficionados. And I'm just saying that only because I have seen a few positively glowing accounts of these post-Canned Heat incarnations — as if, you know, these guys not merely managed to pull it together, but actually succeeded in putting a new, outstanding angle on traditional material. Well — no, not that I've really noticed.
On this 1997 Europe-only release, the band's triple guitar lineup consists of Vestine, Junior Watson, and relative newcomer Robert Lucas, who seemingly takes over the duties of James Thornbury, including lead vocals (which are quite similar to Thornbury's) and some of the songwriting, uh, I mean, song-doctoring (as usual, the «originals» are just slight melodic and lyrical modifications of traditional blues numbers). Larry Taylor remains attached to acoustic bass, and Gregg Kage replaces Ron Shumake on electric.
Again, the main lowlights are those cases where they try to re-record old Heat classics — in this instance, ʽBoogie Musicʼ, done very closely, but predictably inferior-ly, to the original, and, in a moment of bizarre, totally uncalled for blasphemy, a version of ʽGoin' Up The Countryʼ done as a generic acoustic blues with gruff vocals. The only two reasons why anybody paid any attention to the song in the first place were Alan Wilson's falsetto and the flute playing, and now that both of these are gone, it's a good exercise in humility — that is, making something very ordinary out of something quite extraordinary.
Other than that, the rocking numbers are predictably pulled off without a hitch: I think that ʽStrangerʼ, opening the album on a riff copped from ʽI Wish You Wouldʼ, features all three lead guitarists, with Lucas playing the slide, Junior Watson playing the first, «softer», solo, and Vestine on the second, «harsher» one, but I may be totally wrong about that — in any case, the track alternates between three very different styles of playing, two bluesier ones and one rockier one, and that makes it a standout. Unfortunately, the only other standout is the final instrumental ʽGorgo Boogieʼ, an overdriven fuzzy vamp with minimal rhythm support — spotlighting Robert Lucas doing flamenco hand-picks in a rather unique style and making that guitar sound like a highly drunk police siren taking on a life of its own.
Actually, Robert Lucas is a very good guitarist — not that Canned Heat ever hired any bad ones — and if you manage to let down your «who the hell listens to generic blues-rock in the 1990s, let alone the 2010s?» safeguard, every track here is nice and cool. But if you don't, you don't, and that's okay, too. The saddest news of all is that this happened to be the last album to feature anything by Henry Vestine — the last really-mattering musician of the classic Heat lineup passed away on October 20, 1997. Said to be heart failure, but I'm pretty sure drugs must have had something to do with this, too. Every member of Canned Heat is supposed to die from drugs, it's, like, in the Scriptures out there somewhere.