There is a lot of talk going around that Canned Heat is the best white blues group in the country. After a set they blew at the Ashgrove last Saturday night, I am inclined to agree. And that comes after getting a big mixed bag of blues dumped out for us in the last year or so.
What Canned Heat has going for it best is a taut but beautifully harmonious sense of balance within the group. This means more than getting the volume controls set right on every body else's amp. It means a tremendous respect for each other as musicians and with a great capacity for working together as real friends. The tightest arrangements in the world can't produce anything close to that sense of organic blues group unity that comes with people who like each other and who have a common love for the music they are into.
The real musical balance comes out stronger every time Canned Heat blows. It begins with the structure set up by Fuzzy Frank Cook's drums. He plays some fast, intricate stuff--time shifts, out-of-sight clusters, blazing stretches--but never, never gets lost in theory. Nor does Cook try to shuck you with the easy superficial flailing gimmick show served up by many less solid technicians or less groovy skin cats.
Then Al Wilson emerges as the musician of the group--not that the others aren't, of course, but Wilson sets it all up, and has the ear to keep it all together, to start it off and to wind it up. Any blues fan knows Al's harp and his tough-sweet vocal style, with his cool picking guitar technique. These aren't liner notes, but in performance both guitars of Wilson and the hairy lead of Henry Vestine do seem to need some words of explanation. One of the big differences in effect between a blues-oriented band and any of the rock-based groups (and especially the electronic rock music of "the United States of America" and the others sure to follow it) lies in contrasting live with studio-recorded performance. Despite the impressive chart record for Canned Heat's first release on Liberty, like other blues wailers, they really need the pungent vitality of live performance to come off at their best. Take this the other way around, and no matter how exciting it was to hear brilliant, inventive and even revolutionary new groups like "the 'United States of America" who preceded the Canned Heat at the Ashgrove, one awaits their first release with a far different enthusiasm than their return in-person appearance. No one asks the same thing from a live and a recorded tune--but certain kinds of music simply work better in one or the other medium.
That brings us back to Henry Vestine and Al Wilson, both of whom started out with Canned Heat well over a year ago as technically superb and already established musicians. Their stage presence was sort of simple and pure--in some ways (like Cook's percussion) reflecting faithfully the old blues tradition of music-making folk without all the affectations of music hall, show-biz style. Fortunately none of this integrity seems to have been sacrificed, while the group's successful burst into the popular music market has enabled them to loosen-up, especially Vestine. But anyway you get to hear it, Vestine's sound is perhaps the most scintillating statement being laid down (right alongside John Mayall and Eric Clapton, and possibly Mike Bloomfield) by any younger instrumentalist with a blues ear.
If Al Wilson is the "musician," then Henry Vestine is the instrumentalist par excellence of the group. Take just one brief example: his incredible break in the flat-pick guitar style of B. B. King on the King of the Blues' tune "Sweet Sixteen." Vestine set up tensions of musical space that damn near snapped minds. As Big Bear Bob Hite wailed a phrase, Vestine waited, letting all that silence jam up together toward the end, then hit the pick like a moccasin snake, whipping it around again to hand right back to Hite.
Both Bear Hite and base player Larry Taylor add the visual color, guts and energy to give Canned Heat the balance for stage punch surpassed by the Ike and Tina Turner and the Janes Brown Reviews, but not by many ofay numbers that have hit L.A. Taylor climbs up and down the long fingerboard while grooving on tight rhythm patterns with Fuzzy Cook. Hite, with his "lucky 13" Denver, Colorado T-shirt on, and flowered pants covering the bottom half of his 300 pounds, has proved he knows a lot about the blues, In fact, he and Vestine are two of the West Coast's important collectors of old original recordings. Both of them, together with Wilson and some other young L.A. blues fans and scholars like Barry Hansen, contribute significantly to this new field of cultural history. They also lend the Heat's music a firm feel of authenticity--which, however, their intense musical sense keeps far away from sounding dusty and archaeological.
This last point probably best sums up the combined success of the group: the ability of each member to bring toether wide and deep understandings of the blues tradition, pooling this in a beautiful complementary way, in order to create a vital and original contribution to the idiom. In this sense they are very important members of the new musical frontier--whose work is now beginning to function according to the broad and healthy pattern of true folk art. They are fully professionals, just as was the first giant of country music, Jimmie Rodgers, or like the city blues masters of the 1940s and early 1950s, But also like them, Canned Heat's music is relevant.
All this might not have been possible a few years ago. Thanks to Paul Butterfield and a few other popular white blues groups who proved it could be done, a rich, varied and powerful tradition has been opened up for the creative artists, and for those of us who just dig the sounds. Maybe the Rolling Stones and some of their early triumphs with blues material, or the genius of Phil Spector in producing the Righteous Brothers were also critical factors. Jazz had integrated personnel and innovations, but rock and roll was the first fully integrated musical field to have a wide-spread cultural impact. In certain ways, the blues revival of recent years goes one more difficult step beyond this--toward integrating and revitalizing a tradition.
It ain't all good. There are, in fact, some tragic drawbacks to the fading of American Black culture--whether it is the result of being sold-out, flooded out and appropriated, or merely loved to death. As recently as the early 1960s one might well have asked what the hell a white group was trying to do with blues material. Of course this displayed simply a veiled and reversed racism (like, spades could do it better because they had "natural rhythm"?). But that was before there were any white groups that could lay down a blues line with anything like a serious challenge of quality.
Canned Heat does it. But fortunately they do more. With absolutely no desire to be musical taxidermists, nor the sick wit to want to have their records "pass," they already occupy an important historical position as innovators, expanding and enrichening the general style. Their "Boogie" number is but one example of controlled and intelligent but all the same ecstatic utilization of electronics. This represents one giant step beyond the electrification of blues in the 1940s; and like that development, it could represent the opening of a whole new and exciting musical future. Whatever happens then, Canned Heat has to be one of the best in that big blues bag right now.
Kurt von Meier
November 12, 1967