I've always found it rather strange that genres of music so conducive to soloing, like blues based rock and roll and the blues themselves, haven't encouraged more instrumental compositions. Maybe it's because of everyone's limited expectations regarding the music, especially those within the industry who control what is released to the public. They think it should always be accompanied by vocals.
Sure, there are extended jams sometimes. Bands will noodle away at a theme in the middle of a song and pass solos back and forth, but that is not the same thing as deliberately writing a song without vocals. It's not as if there wasn't precedent for popular songs being instrumentals, what with jazz and the big band era both relying primarily on instrumentals for the majority of their music. But somehow or another, rock and blues were confined into a territory and defined by a format that wasn't conducive to writing instrumental pieces.
Whatever the reason, complete albums of instrumental pieces by rock/blues bands are as rare as hen's teeth. Although Ruf record's Canned Heat release, Instrumentals 1967 – 1996, is a compilation of tracks recorded over a nearly thirty year period and doesn't really qualify as a band going into the studio with the intent of making an instrumental recording, it is still a collection of fifteen songs deliberately written as instrumentals — tracks where the vocals are a secondary consideration.
The disc has been split up into the different eras of the group, reflecting the changing make-up of the band membership. The first six songs are from the band's original pre-1970 lineup, with the nine remaining being split over three other formations. Tracks seven, eight, and nine were recorded in 1971/72, the second incarnation. Of the final six, five are recorded with Junior Watson and one with Robert Lucas playing guitar and all were done between 1994 and '96.
Musically, the most ambitious and varied work comes in the earliest era when multi-instrumentalist, falsetto voiced Alan Wilson was still alive. (Wilson died of suicide/drug overdose in 1970, brought on by depression caused by his loss of sight.) While a couple of the tracks are what you'd expect, bar band style jam sessions indistinguishable from any similar band, there are a couple of real gems within this section.
The disc's opening cut, "Parthenogenesis," is an almost twenty minute opus. It is divided into nine short movements featuring different variations of a theme and utilizing instruments you might not expect from a blues band. For instance, Alan Wilson plays two sections on the Jaw harp and uses his chromatic harp for a different harmonica sound on another. While there are some weak moments in the composition, like a drum solo just sounding tacked on instead of integrated with its companions, the overall effect is an interesting contrast to your standard rock and roll guitar-driven solo.
Alan Wilson again takes forefront on the song "Scat," which, as the name implies, is a cheerful and upbeat scat song performed to a lilting jazz beat. Again, what is most pleasant about this piece is the way it stands out from the usual turgid excesses of the period.
Unfortunately, the good is almost equally balanced by songs like those described above, which, while not bad, per se, lack the originality of those two pieces. Maybe distortion boxes were new in those days and people were still not over the novelty, because fuzz seems to be a fairly common element of this and the songs from the early 1970s as well.
It might just be me, but distortion and fuzz don't just sound that exciting anymore, and, in fact, after a while, just become noise. But there were still some more interesting tracks yet to come, including one track from that period. "Caterpillar Crawl" is distinguished by its interesting rhythmic structure and general good time nonsense feel.
In fact, one of the really good things about this disc, and Canned Heat as a band (which eventually rescues even the most boring of songs), is the fact they never seem to be taking themselves seriously. That doesn't mean they are giving the music short shrift, but understand what they are doing is not rocket science. It's such a refreshing contrast to the pomposity of some of today's over-inflated egos that have far too high an opinion of themselves and their importance in the grand scheme of things.
They are so obviously having a good time, even if the piece isn't very original, it is still just fun to listen to them. If they can have that much fun in the recording studio, these guys must have been a hoot to see live, especially when Bear Hite was still alive.
He was the big hulking behemoth behind the microphone until he was felled by a massive heart attack in the early 1980s. Listening to him babble on "Down In The Gutter But Free," using his voice as another instrument, is to hear someone who obviously had a great time doing what he did.
Let's jump forward in time to the mid-nineties. With only Fito de la Parra from the original band of 1967 left anchoring the sound, it seems appropriate he has been the man setting the pace and tempo as the drummer since the beginning. The live track "Mambo Tango" carries the stamp of a drummer who knows how to hold the centre and has been doing so for years. It's a fun Latin-tinged blues number, as is obvious from the title. Again, it proves these guys, no matter what the membership, are far superior to your straight ahead, run of the mill blues based rock band any day of the week.
They aren't simply content to stick within the standard formula that has guaranteed the success of bands like The Rolling Stones, The Who, and Led Zeppelin or made a hero out of Eric Clapton. They may never have enjoyed the commercial rewards of those other guys, but they sure played a lot more interesting and diverse sounding music.
It is very easy for musicians to play blues music in a certain style and fall into a rut instrumentally. While Canned Heat occasionally will sound like any number of other blues bands, on the disc Instrumentals 1967 – 1996, they also show throughout the decades of their existence, they have the ability to play outside the box with style and flair.