Canned Heat – Songs From The Road
(Ruf Records: RUF 1218 CD + DVD)
The boogie juggernaut rolls on with a 50th anniversary CD/DVD live set recorded at the Harmonie Club in Bonn, Germany, in March. Canned Heat’s survival is paradoxically both a triumph against all the odds and no real surprise. They’ve been through so many line-ups and bust-ups, yet always manage to re-emerge, albeit with various degrees of success, to slot back into their well-worn groove.
Spoiler alert: This review contains a rant about drum solos.
Canned Heat have apparently played more festivals than any other act and sold more records than any other blues band. An incredible 50 individuals have passed through the band’s revolving door, some seemingly staggering through it as drink and drugs took their toll. Guitarist Henry Vestine joined the band no fewer than five times, as did bass man Larry ‘The Mole’ Taylor, though the fact that their later membership rarely co-incided does tell its own tale. With such a number, it is no surprise that there are fallen comrades, 11 of them in fact, Vestine included, plus of course originals Bob ‘The Bear’ Hite and Alan ‘Blind Owl’ Wilson.
So how many originals do we have here? Well, none. But we do have two members from the band’s first ‘classic’ line-up that charted with “On The Road Again” and the Woodstock anthem “Going Up The Country.” The Mole resurfaced in 2008 to join long-term keeper of the flame, drummer Fito de la Parra. Multi-instrumentalist Dale Spalding takes on Hite’s harmonica and vocal duties while guitarist John Paulus stands in for the convalescing Harvey Mandel, revered key figure in the 1970 line-up that spawned “Let’s Work Together.”
This is unsurprisingly a ‘best of’ set list with a couple of new numbers. Equally unsurprisingly, much of it lacks the youthful exuberance of the original versions but it’s a strong performance throughout from top musicians who have rocked around the block hundreds of times yet still have a bit of the hippie in them. The accompanying DVD (with two extra tracks) is essential viewing, not least to check who’s actually playing what, the sleeve’s credits far from telling the full story.
A nicely controlled “On The Road Again” kicks it all into gear, Spalding’s harp convincing but Fito’s falsetto vocal wavering a little as he stands in for Al Wilson, a task he has to repeat on “Going Up The Country” (cue a tale of the dangers of ‘brown acid’). Wilson also took vocal duties on the 1970 track “Time Was” but this single wasn’t well-know enough to trouble the charts and so Spalding can revive this with some aplomb above chunky guitar from Paulus.
Taylor hands the bass to Paulus for a few numbers, taking over lead guitar duties himself, particularly successfully on his own instrumental “Nighthawk” with Spalding’s harmonica again to the fore as the rest dig in with their own house rocking boogie, with fat Les Paul from Taylor, before the pace is interrupted by a neat bass solo from Paulus.
“Oaxaca” another instrumental, and penned by this line-up, has several changes of gear and is a fine showcase for Spalding’s wailing harp and features a mid-track funky underlay by de la Parra.
Amos Milburn’s “Chicken Shack Boogie” swaggers suitably, reprising well the sleazy boogie-woogie of the original, which, I believe, featured Little Richard’s backing band. There is great guitar from Paulus, also a feature of their reworking of 1970’s rock n’ rolling “Future Blues”, counted in with some deep drum play and on which Spalding dons guitar too.
Duke Pearson’s “Cristo Redentor”, here dedicated to Harvey Mandel’s recovery, is a tribute to both The Snake’s solo album take and the wonderful better-known offering by Charlie Musselwhite as it is both a very tasteful and neatly controlled harp spotlight from Spalding and straight-to-the-heart solo lead guitar from Taylor. Paulus then joins in with a neat prodding bass showcase, all the players inspiring warm applause in a real highlight.
The original “Amphetamine Annie” boasted one of Canned Heat’s finest moments with a wonderfully chewy power solo by Henry Vestine. Paulus has a different guitar style, here with sharp, stabbing guitar interplaying with rhythm from The Mole who also takes on vocal duties.
Muddy Waters’ “Rollin’ and Tumblin’”, an early Heat highlight, works well as any track here with Spalding’s chugging harp again up front and, this time, slide from Taylor, also a feature of an almost convincing “Let’s Work Together”, though The Mole is no Harvey Mandel.
Then, of course, the expected much-refried finale, now called “Euro Boogie”. Now, this is no ‘Hitler was right’ moment – but apparently the Führer did actually ban drum solos, seeing them as a threat to the moral purity of the citizens of the Third Reich. They were also a self-indulgent curse of many a late 60s/early 70s rock concert. There was that dreaded moment when the rest of the band put down their instruments and walked off the stage as the spotlight zoomed in on the man with the sticks. The bigger the kit, the longer and more off-script the solo. And if there was a gong, you were in real trouble.
Fito de la Parra never need to brandish a gong but Canned Heat did take the individual soloing thing to new levels with in-concert boogie-themed showcasing taking over two sides of one album in their 1968 ‘Living The Blues’ double LP set. They’ve concluded every gig swith something similar ever since. The individual solos are inventive and show off great skills but this job was already done here throughout the set, particularly on “Cristo Redentor.” Still, I suppose it was unavoidable on a landmark release such as this.
All in all, this is as convincing as a genuine Canned Heat retrospective can be in 2015. Spalding’s harp is the real deal, vocally he isn’t the growling bear that was Bob Hite but he is a good vocalist and an exuberant front man. Al Wilson is missed – but of course has been since 1970. The multi-instrument versatility of this line-up is a big strength with the worthy Taylor in particular putting in a big shift. John Paulus adds accomplished and varied guitars and Fito’s economical, occasionally powerful, drumming adds more than just familiar touches from decades ago.
That this band, so much a product of an era of excess, can still be around to nail its colours to the blues mast so convincingly is a triumph in itself. John Lee Hooker, Sunnyland Slim, Clarence ‘Gatemouth’ Brown, Memphis Slim and Albert Collins were among those who once collaborated with Canned Heat. The present incarnation, while perhaps no longer quite a work in progress, is still living the blues. Oh…. and…. don’t forget to boogie!