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Tuesday, October 4, 2016

Canned Heat: Reheated


1) Looking For The Party; 2) Drifting; 3) I'm Watching You; 4) Bullfrog Blues; 5) Hucklebuck; 6) Mercury Blues; 7) Gunstreet Girl; 8) I Love To Rock & Roll; 9) So Fine (Betty Jean); 10) Take Me To The River; 11) Red Headed Woman; 12) Built For Comfort.

Yes, that is just the way it is: this late Eighties version of Canned Heat, much like Fleetwood Mac, retains only the rhythm section from its original incarnation — Fito de la Parra is on drums, and Larry Taylor is on bass. Completing the lineup is James Thornbury on slide guitar and harmonica, and, most importantly, Junior Watson on lead guitar. In case you don't know who that is, Junior is a professional «jump blues» guitarist — his preferred stylistics seems to be the early electric playing style of guys like T-Bone Walker, or, at best, the early white rock'n'roll entertainers like Bill Haley's Franny Beecher. Consequently, it is no surprise that most of this album sounds like one large 1940s / 1950s revival, strange as that might seem coming from 1988, and coming from a band that still willed to be billed as «Canned Heat».

With all objective reservations made, though, Reheated sounds cool. Like the late period Hite albums, this music is no longer trying to prove anything — all it does is provide you with a bit of retro-sounding entertainment. But it has a nice balance between clean, steady production and rawness / edginess of sound — you can tell that the production is sufficiently perfected for this music to have been recorded as early as it tries to sound, but there are no diagnostic features of the Eighties whatsoever — and both Thornbury and Watson know their idioms to perfection. Even if this is only a tribute to an epoch long gone by, it still makes sense to listen to such covers as Eddie Boyd's ʽDriftingʼ and re-recordings of ʽBullfrog Bluesʼ just to learn how it is possible to reintegrate the spirit of early electric blues into a modern blues record without it sounding too glossy, too serious, and too boring.

It does help that Junior Watson is an excellent guitarist, as seen best on the long, but all-the-way mesmerizing instrumental ʽHucklebuckʼ, where he entertains us with a seemingly endless barrage of jazz / blues / country / folk licks, pilfering from all over the place and sewing it all together quite seamlessly. I am a big fan of the T-Bone Walker style of soloing — a meticulous, accurate, and always humor-ful style of stringing notes together — and this is a cool modern way of up­grading it by speeding things up just a bit and diversifying the phrasing assortiment, without losing (well, maybe just a bit) the humor that goes along with it. It's not always that fun and lively on the vocal tracks (most of the vocals, by the way, are handled by Thornbury, who has a fairly neutral bluesy voice), but it's consistently listenable and enjoyable.

Not everything works: for instance, their rendition of Al Green's ʽTake Me To The Riverʼ is pointless — the song is primarily a vocal soul number, and Thornbury has neither the sinful se­ductiveness of Al himself, nor the paranoia quotient of a David Byrne; their stripping the song down to bare essentials only draws the attention ever closer to the vocals, and there it is quickly dissipated. The idea to take ʽGun Street Girlʼ from Tom Waits' Rain Dogs and trace it back to its boogie-woogie roots would be fun if its boogie-woogie roots weren't so obvious on the original: it was Tom's innovative approach to textures and melodic flow that made the song special, so it's a bit... banal, I guess, to make it un-special again. But still curious to a degree.

And I do have to admit that at least on the fast numbers, the Taylor / de la Parra rhythm section sounds very cool — Taylor has never been a genuine bass wizard, but the few styles of holding down the instrument that he does know, he masters to perfection, and something like ʽMercury Bluesʼ really gets all your inner rhythms going (I also love his «velvety» bass tone on the song, no idea how he gets it, though). I may not know what I'm talking about here, but it still seems as if the two were all set to prove that they could still carry the Canned Heat logo loud and proud, and now that they were no longer in the shadow of Wilson, Vestine, and Hite, they did their best to stress that they were Canned Heat, and as good as Junior Watson might be, he is still just passing through on this long, strange journey during which an old bassist and an old drummer encounter every second guitar player in the world for a one-night stand.

So it's not so much Reheated as Retrofitted, but that's okay — I'm not sure if «reheating» what­ever was left of the old band was at all possible, so retrofitting was probably the best solution there was. ʽHucklebuckʼ gets my thumbs up; the rest of the album does not (it probably makes more sense to just seek out the solo albums of Junior Watson if one is truly interested in his playing style), but, you know, for an album produced by two of the least remembered members of one of the least remembered Woodstock bands, this one's nearly a sudden masterpiece of an unexpected surprise.

1 comment:

  1. Oh, me likes this version of Bullfrog Blues a whole lotta better than the 1960's one. The reason is simple: it's big fun. So is The Hucklebuck. If these two songs are even a bit representative for the album then it deserves a thumbs up for the big middle finger towards the entire decade.