While the membership has changed many times over the years, the classic line-up of Canned Heat was unquestionably co-founders Bob “The Bear” Hite (vocals) and Alan “The Blind Owl” Wilson (guitar, harmonica and vocals), joined by Larry Taylor (bass), Adolfo de la Parra (drums), and, alternately, Henry Vestine or Harvey Mandel (lead guitar). While the band carried on after September 3, 1970, things weren’t the same when Wilson was found dead that day at the age of 27. No one knew it at the time, but this placed him in the tragic “27 Club” of musicians who died at that age including Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, Jim Morrison, Brian Jones, Kurt Cobain, and Robert Johnson.
In fact, killed by an apparent barbiturate overdose on a hillside behind Hite’s home, Wilson left us just weeks before the deaths of Joplin and Hendrix, but with far less fanfare. That’s a strange thing as all three were stars at both the Monterey Pop Festival and Woodstock. Wilson’s “Going Up the Country,” in fact, was the unofficial theme song for Michael Wadleigh’s Woodstock documentary. Wilson’s signature tenor voice was also part of Canned Heat’s biggest hit to that time, 1968′s “On the Road Again.”
Still, despite being the “Kings of the Boogie” and lasting longer than most of their contemporaries, Canned Heat somehow eluded being considered in the front ranks of late ’60s California bands. But they were far more than mere stablemates to Big Brother, the Airplane, the Dead, and Quicksilver Messenger Service.
For one matter, they were among the musical performers that kept close to their blues roots. Not only were many of their songs re-workings of blues standards, Wilson, in particular, was a serious student of the masters that had inspired him. In 1964, he helped Eddie “Son” House re-learn the slide guitar that House had forgotten how to play to launch the aging singer’s new career. As a result, Wilson joined House at the Newport Folk Festival and on a few numbers on The Legendary Son House, Father of Folk Blues (1965). In 1971, John Lee Hooker admitted astonishment at Wilson’s ability to follow him on harp on the equally legendary Hooker ‘N Heat.
On another level, Canned Heat didn’t shy away from using their music to make political and social commentary. Hite’s 1968 “Amphetamine Annie,” for example, was one of the first anti-drug songs of the era. The band earned a measure of notoriety for the album cover for their 1970 Future blues because of the moon landing/ Iwo Jima imagery including an upside-down American flag. Along with Wilson’s “Poor Moon,” the point of the cover was to reflect Wilson’s growing environmentalism and concern that humans would soon be polluting the moon as well as the earth.
Now, “Poor Moon,” “Going Up the Country,” and “On the Road Again” are among the delights on the new 20-song, two-CD set, The Blind Owl, a tribute to Alan Wilson. Lest you fear “tribute” means another collection of admirers spinning out covers of Canned Heat material, in this case tribute means a compilation of Heat tunes featuring the lead vocals and playing of the “Blind Owl.” (He got the name, by the way, from guitar virtuoso John Fahey referring to Wilson’s extreme nearsightedness.) So it’s not a Canned Heat best of collection—no Hite belters like “Let’s Work Together.” It’s all about Wilson’s rhythm and bottleneck guitar, harmonica, and his singing in his Skip James inspired high-pitched tenor, the West Coast mirror of Britain’s John Mayall.
The two executive producers certainly know their stuff. From the beginning, Skip Taylor served as both manager and producer for many of the Heat’s albums. Drummer Adolpho “Fito” de la Parra, the only surviving member of the classic line-up still working in the band, also oversaw the anthology. They culled tracks from Canned Heat (1967), Boogie with Canned Heat (1968), Living the Blues (1968), Hallelujah (1969), Future Blues (1970), and Canned Heat ’70 Concert Live in Europe (1970). That’s a rich well to draw from. And most of that is on disc one.
The first disc includes such nuggets as “Help Me,” Wilson’s 1966 debut as a singer. From Boogie with Canned Heat, we get “An Owl Song,” the band’s first recording with horns demonstrating they could shuffle as well as boogie. Known for being shy and awkward, Wilson’s lyrics reflected his fears as in “My Mistake,” a down and dirty guitar showpiece with shifting melody sections. Likewise, “Change My Ways” was a percussive rocking number, a perfectly typical ’60s California jam. Also reflecting the times, “Get Off My Back” was another shuffle with a hot guitar solo bouncing around the speakers. The band got soulful with “Time Was” from Hallelujah, released just weeks before Woodstock. They got downright psychedelic with the experimental “Nebulosity / Rollin’ & Tumblin’ / Five Owls” suite, of which only portions are edited here.
Disc two is more of a mixed bag with live selections from a variety of venues with varying sound quality. “Alan’s Intro” is Wilson’s slide introduction to “Woodstock Boogie” recorded at the 1969 festival. “Skat” is just that, Wilson scatting over a meandering jam. “Human Condition” was Wilson’s final studio recording which leads into the most poignant offering on the set, the last cut of “Childhood’s End.”
Beyond the music, the package benefits from very good liner notes from Taylor who gets into the stories behind the songs. There seemed only one real lapse to me. Why not a taste of Wilson supporting Son House or some interplay between Wilson and Hooker? For a full tribute to the man, it wasn’t required every offering feature his vocals or simply be a Wilson guitar instrumental.
But beyond these omissions, The Blind Owl is a worthy addition to any library of Canned Heat music, music of the ’60s, and for those who love blues-rock. For many, I suspect, they’ll discover or re-discover a voice and sound that more than deserves this nicely assembled memorial. As Wilson said at Woodstock, “It’s a good night for a boogie!”