Graded on a Curve: Canned Heat,
The Best of Canned Heat

Blues rock avatars Canned Heat are best remembered by some for their long-windedness; the double-album-side, 41-minute version of “Refried Boogie” on 1968’s Living the Blues is a landmark in conspicuous boogie bloat. They’re best remembered by others for the so bad it’s funny jacket (looks like a Vincent Price B-movie horror movie poster!) of Living the Blues’ predecessor, 1968’s Boogie with Canned Heat.

As for me, I’ll always remember them best for Ann Magnuson’s hilarious take on the late and very hefty Bob Hite in Bongwater classic “Chicken Pussy”: “There’s a king-sized mattress in the middle of the room/Where me and the big fat lead singer from Canned Heat/Finish up an afternoon of incredibly hot sex/Boy does he have a big one.”

But you know what? Despite everything I said above about Canned Heat–which took its name from the canned heating fuel popular amongst America’s “I’m so desperate I’ll drink anything, even if it kills me” hobo set–does have a big one. They’ve got a whopper.

Unfortunately, Canned Heat tends to get overlooked amid the American blues and boogie rock throng of the late sixties and early seventies, probably because they were a homely bunch and lacked the flash and panache of such contemporaries as Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, and the Allman Brothers. That said, at their best, vocalist Bob “Bear” Hite, Alan “Blind Owl” Wilson (guitar, vocals, harmonica), Harry Vestine (guitar) and Company cooked like Sterno, and went down a hell of a lot easier.

If Canned Heat had a fault, it was in the songwriting department. The band put out a series of solid but not great Post-Summer of Love LPs, the best of them being 1970’s Future Blues. Which is where the humble The Best of Canned Heat comes in. Sure, it’s the sort of thing your serious vinyl collector turns her persnickety nose up at. The packaging is cheesy, you only get 10 songs so forget about your deep cuts, and have I mentioned the cheesy packaging? But if you’re unfamiliar with Canned Heat and you’re looking for an introduction, this boogified slice of refried vinyl is a good place to start.

The LP opens with the band’s signature song, drone and boogie masterpiece “On the Road Again.” This one is an Alan Wilson showcase; he contributes falsetto, tambura and harmonica, and thanks to his multi-tasking “On the Road Again” shuffles down the road just fine. On “Same All Over” the band sets a jaunty melody against world-weary lyrics, and tops things off with some funky piano and group shouting on the chorus; basic message: might as well stay at home, folks, it’s the same all over!

Canned Heat’s chugalugging version of Wilbert Harrison’s “Let’s Work Together” is a masterstroke; Hite’s vocals have bite, Vestine successor Harvey Mandel’s guitar is all fuzzed up, and Wilson’s harmonica is downright ornery. And Adolfo de la Parra goes to town on drums. As for “Bullfrog Blues,” it could almost pass as an outtake from Workingman’s Dead; Vestine plays Jerry, Hite plays Pigpen, and what you get is a crackerjack slice of circa 1967 boogaloo.

“Time Was” is a great lost track from the year Neil Armstrong put boot on the moon. Wilson warbles, Vestine plays some very far freaking out guitar, and Larry Taylor shows off on bass, and by so doing give the country blues a dayglo paint job. The clunky “Boogie Music” doesn’t really boogie and is the only track that isn’t up to scratch. Imagine Little Feat facing off against Grand Funk in a fight to the death. Now imagine Grand Funk winning. That said, I dig Hite’s groovy spoken take out at the end.

Did I say “On the Road Again” was Canned Heat’s signature tune? Dear me. It was actually “Going Up the Country,” the pithy anthem that encapsulated the “Let’s get back to the land” ethos of the Woodstock generation. Call it a country blues shuffle or one very friendly boogie, but don’t miss out on the catchy melody, Wilson’s unprepossessing vocals, or that cheerful flute.

“Amphetamine Annie” is a cautionary song, kind of like “Casey Jones” but more, you know, direct. Annie shovels snow, Vestine plays a whole bunch of positively ferocious licks, and the whole band shouts “Speed kills!” Oh, and poor Annie ends up in the cemetery. As for Canned Heat’s cover of Muddy Waters’ “Rollin’ and Tumblin’,” it doesn’t so much roll and tumble as come charging out of the speakers. Played with taut assurance by a bunch of guys who know their way around the blues, it was made to impress and does.

11-minute closer “Fried Hockey Boogie” opens like vintage ZZ Top and boasts a groove as deep as the Marianas Trench. Hite plays narrator and makes sure everybody in the band gets their chance to “do the boogie,” and if that sounds like a recipe for disaster it isn’t because the band never stops pretending it’s an earthmover. Sure, things slow down during the morally unconscionable (and blessedly brief) drum and bass solos, but Vestine more than makes up for it with a lengthy solo that is all fuzz and fury and should probably be considered an electrocution hazard.

Canned Heat may not have rocked the world, but their charms are undeniable; their easy-going gait, crack musicianship, and firm command of the blues and boogie idioms are indisputable. The serious collector will want to seek out their first five LPs; the neophyte could do far worse than start with this one.

GRADED ON A CURVE:
A-

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