[Today: Into the boogie…]
Canned Heat took their name from Sterno, which desperate alcoholics would drink to chase a buzz during Prohibition. More specifically, they’re named for Tommy Johnson’s tune ‘Canned Heat Blues’, which bemoans that state of deadly drunkenness. But while Canned Heat were one of a stampede of psychedelic blues bands to pop up in the late 60’s, they sound less like a Tommy Johnson tribute band and more like a group of guys who sipped from a can of Sterno before heading onstage. Their blues are a gloriously ragged concoction that they called ‘Boogie Music’, but they were solid enough to back John Lee Hooker on his 1971 album Hooker ‘N Heat.
The same description that drove me away from them in college – ‘sloppy proto-hard rock’ or something of the like – would today have me hopping on the unicorn and flying over to the local record stores to find some of their LPs. Which I have, and I have to say that the best Canned Heat experience is the live experience. Their first four albums are up-and-down affairs that all feature a couple of must-have songs. Fronted by 300 pound lead singer Bob ‘The Bear’ Hite, it’s little wonder that Canned Heat was one of the groups that stole the show at Woodstock. Live At Topanga Corral finds them in an earlier incarnation (allegedly 1966/67, actually 1968) but still cooking up the boogie.
Jimi Hendrix also put on a pretty good set at Woodstock, although you’d be hard-pressed to find any Hendrix fan who would argue it was his finest performance. This fan thinks his best live moment might just be Live At Winterland, which was recorded October 10th-12th, 1968 at the esteemed San Francisco venue. As someone who has listened to dozens of different versions of Jimi playing ‘Red House’, I can confidently say that this is the hands-down definitive take. The same can be said of ‘Fire’ and ‘Manic Depression’, which both crackle with a spark that gives some hint of the charge that Hendrix provided in person.
Interestingly, it was the blazing virtuosity of Hendrix that helped bring me around to the boogie slop of Canned Heat. There is a strain of Hendrix bootleg that features him in the studio late at night, jamming on endless blues tunes that go nowhere and do nothing in the best possible way. That’s the spirit of Canned Heat – don’t expect too much, and you’ll get plenty…
Listen: Canned Heat Blues [Tommy Johnson]
Listen: Wish You Would [Canned Heat, Topanga]
Listen: Going Up The Country [Canned Heat, from Woodstock]
Listen: Red House [Jimi Hendrix]
Listen: Fire [Jimi Hendrix]