The 60s scene for rock/blues bands was so crowded, (Paul Butterfield /John Mayall and the Bluesbreakers, Steppenwolf, Grand Funk Railroad, to name just a few) it was easy to get lost in the haze. Canned Heat was just those guys, formed by vocalist Bob ‘the Bear’ Hite and slide guitarist Alan ‘Blind Owl’ Wilson in 1965, Los Angeles, California. They got their name from a 1928 song by Tommy Johnson, Canned Heat Blues, about a fellow who would drink what was called streno, or ‘canned heat’. Their blues/boogie/rock style yielded such gems as On the Road Again, the smash hit of this album. It was their second record, and it proved to be one of the classics of all time. Their special formula was to use the folk/blues approach akin to legends like John Lee Hooker (they would eventually record an album with him, Hooker n Heat), and load it up with a driving boogie beat, and sprinkle on some psychedelic powder. So let’s take a closer look at the album, unpack their sound, and some of the gear used in making it.
The band featured Henry ‘Sunflower’ Vestine on lead guitar, Larry ‘the Mole’ Taylor on bass and Adolfo ‘Fito’ De la Parra on drums. For the recording of the album they had the help of Sunnyland Slim on keyboards and Dr. John on piano and horn arrangements.
The album rolls open with Evil Woman, on a throbbing bass and a simple drum walk, then some clean guitar riffs, a dueling harp, and Hite’s inmitiable voice. The song is along the lines of a Doors number, with a touch of psychedelia in the air. Track 2 My Crime is a standard Chicago blues ditty with some tasty harp chops, and Vestine’s Gibson SG likely into a Fender Dual-Showman or Twin Reverb howls sweetly on this chugging piece. Which brings us to the record’s legendary number, On the Road Again, an easily recognisable open riff, a traditional blues riff behind Wilson's angelic falsetto voice, and it’s a heady toe-tapper; it’s still fresh and cool 50 years later.
Early R&B is showcased in pieces like World In a Jug, with some tidy tandem guitar work between Wilson and Vestine, and Turpentine Moan, featuring Sunnyland Slim tickling the ivories in fine juke-joint blues boogie style. Wilson’s slippery slide work (the ‘moan’) is on his ‘54 Gibson Les Paul Goldtop plugged into an Orange Rockerverb 100 MK III. He also shredded a Fender Mustang White Electric guitars, and a Telecaster.
The 2nd side is pure Canned Heat, opening with the anti-drug anthem Amphetamine Annie, “a song with a message”, says Hite, and the message was “speed kills!”, which became part of the anti-drug lexicon. An Owl Song is boogie woogie baby!, with some delicious harp work by Wilson, and the crisp piano and horn arrangements by Dr. John. The good doctor also sits in for the instrumental Marie Laveau, a woman who was something of a legend in Creole voodoo circles, Marie Catherine Laveau, who died in 1881 at the young age of 86 (something incredible back then). This is a personal, soulful lamentation of her life in lilting riffs and jazzy piano accompaniment backed by steady winds; simply masterful work. The album ends strongly with Fried Hockey Boogie, written by Taylor and is an 11 minute blues/rock jam for the record books. There’s time enough for the whole band to shine alone, only to come together for one hell-of-a blues/rock road song.
The band were also big news at the mythic Monterey Pop and Woodstock festivals, where they started a huge following and became the reference for boogie/rock bands. Boogie with Canned Heat was likely their crowning achievement, beside Future Blues. If you're not familiar with them but enjoy blues and psychedelic rock, this would be a very good place to start, from the beginning, with that 60s vibe. As Hite says it, “Don’t forget to boogie”.