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It was either dance music or progressive rock schlock the record executives wanted.

Music Review: Canned Heat – Canned, Labeled, and Shelved Boogie-Woogie Blues At Its Best

Okay, this is a two part question: How many people have seen the movie Woodstock (the original festival in 1969, not any of the remakes)? Part two is how many of you actually remember any of it? For those of you were able to answer in the affirmative to both questions, I'm sure this memory will be relevant to you. Those who can't – well there is a really great director's cut out now you can watch and hopefully remember.

The scene in Woodstock that always has and always will send a little bit of a shiver up my spine is near the beginning. People are starting to arrive and the music swells up underneath the activity. The opening bars of Canned Heat's "Goin' Up The Country" have been permanently etched into my brain ever since I first watched the movie in its entirety somewhere back in the mid 1970s.

From the whistle of the flute to the almost falsetto sound of the lead vocalist as he sings of going somewhere where the water tastes like wine and jumping in the river and staying drunk all the time will live with me forever. Which makes it all the more surprising I've never really searched out more of their music before now.

It was almost like I didn't want to spoil that one moment by hearing any of their other music, in case I found something in it that would ruin my one pure image of them. I needn't have worried because now that I've heard them in more depth, I realize, although that first song will remain indelibly burnt into my memory banks, there was plenty of room left for more of their music.

A new double disc put out by the Belgium label Music Avenue called Canned, Labelled, and Shelved contains re-issues of two albums from the period of their earliest incarnation. Since their formation in 1965, the band has seen its share of the usual rock and roll sadness and madness that took the lives of too many talented people. By 1977 when Human Condition, the second disc in this set, was recorded, they had already had some major reshufflings in the line up.

Alan Wilson, the falsetto voice behind "Goin' Up The Country," died in 1970 from a combination of depression over his near blindness and a heroin overdose. Bob Hite, the Bear, the other primary vocalist of the band, died in 1981 from a massive heart attack brought on by drugs. And finally, Henry Vestine died in 1997 from respiratory failure while on tour in Belgium.

But through it all, they have remained true to their dedication of updating traditional blues songs and making them into boogie/rock and roll classics. Unlike other bands that have fished into the past to find their music, these guys went out of their way to ensure the men who wrote the tunes they performed got the recognition they deserve. They searched out and found folk like Albert Collins, Skip James, Memphis Slim, and Clarence Gatemouth Brown and either negotiated recording contracts for them, toured with them, or arranged for them to have their own solo concerts.

The first disc in this package, Live At The Kaleidoscope, was recorded in 1969 and is the original line up most remember from the Woodstock movie. It's typical boogie/blues/rock and roll music performed with verve and gusto.

Being a live disc, there's plenty of room for soloing and the guys take full advantage of it by having some great all out jams, especially on their version of "Sweet Sixteen". What's nice about Canned Heat is they knew when to stop, unlike too many of the excessive solos from that time, which now seem interminable to listen to. These come to an end before you're starting to wonder if they will ever finish.
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The only drawback to the disc is it seemed to take the first couple of songs for them to get the sound under control, so the vocals are a bit buried in the mix at the start. Considering the time period, though, and the lack of great recording gear, it's still all around decent enough sound.

The 1977 studio disc Human Condition is notable because it is the last recording to feature the vocals of Bob Hite before he died. The band was working on their next recording when he collapsed from the heart attack. The mid-seventies were a hard time for a band like Canned Heat as disco was all the rage and pure rock and roll blues music wasn't in very high demand.

It was either dance music or progressive rock schlock the record executives wanted. Rock and roll was too unclean and uncivilized for the slick and boring overproduced music and styles of the time. Human Condition was a record deal offered them by the Takoma record label and, unfortunately, it just didn't sell as there was no market for it.

The title track, "Human Condition," was the last song the late Alan Wilson had written and it's a great blues/rock number, as are all the cuts on this disc. They even brought in some special guests to help out, including the Chamber Brothers to sing background vocals on "Strut My Stuff", "Open Up Your Backdoor", and "Wrapped Up". This album proved they could still play the music they loved, even if no one wanted to listen anymore.

If you're not familiar with Canned Heat, or you were like me and really only knew them through the one song, then Canned, Labeled, and Shelved will make a great addition to your music library. Although there is still a version of the band out there, it's pretty much in name only as all that's left from the 1977 line up is drummer Adolfo "Fito" De La Parra. They are signed to Ruf Records in Germany (who seem to be "the" Blues label now) and are producing, on average, an album a year.

Canned, Labeled, and Shelved is the history of the band, and before you start buying anything new, you really ought to know where they came from and meet the originators. It would only be polite to pay your respects.

About Richard Marcus

Richard Marcus is the author of two books commissioned by Ulysses Press, "What Will Happen In Eragon IV?" (2009) and "The Unofficial Heroes Of Olympus Companion". Aside from Blogcritics his work has appeared around the world in publications like the German edition of Rolling Stone Magazine and the multilingual web site Qantara.de. He has been writing for Blogcritics.org since 2005 and has published around 1900 articles at the site.

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