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Music Review: Instrumentals 1967 - 1996 Canned Heat

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 simply because of everyone's limited expectations regarding the music, especially those within the industry who control what is released to the public, that it is always accompanied by vocals.

Sure there are extended jams sometimes when 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 was no precedent for popular songs being instrumentals, what with jazz and the big band era both being genres that relied primarily on instrumentals for the majority of their music. But somehow or other rock and blues were confined into the territory defined by a format that wasn't conducive to writing instrumental pieces.

Whatever the reason complete albums of instrumental pieces are as rare as hen's teeth by rock/blues bands. Although Ruf record's Canned Heat release Instrumentals 1967 – 1996 is a compilation of tracks that were 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 that were deliberately written as instrumentals, or 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 line-up, with the nine remaining being split over three other formations. Songs 7,8 & 9 were in 1971/72, the second incarnation, and of the final six, five are recorded with Junior Watson and one with Robert Lucas playing guitar and all 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 that are indistinguishable from any similar band, there are a couple of real gems within this section.
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The discs opening cut "Parthenogenesis" is an almost twenty minute opus divided into nine short movements featuring different variations around a theme and utilizing instruments that 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 perhaps there are some weak moments in the composition, where a segment like a drum solo just sounds tacked on instead of integrated with its companions, the overall effect is an interesting contrast to your standard rock and roll guitar driven soloing

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 becomes so much noise as far as I'm concerned. 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 that they never seem to be taking themselves seriously. That doesn't mean they are giving the music short shrift, but understand that what they are doing is not rocket science. It's such a refreshing contrast to the pomposity of some of todays over inflated egos that have far to high an opinion of themselves and their importance in the grand scheme of things.

They are so obviously having a good time that even if the piece isn't that original or the greatest song in the world 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 1980's. Listening to him babble on "Down In The Gutter But Free" using his voice as another instrument is to hear someone that obviously has a great time doing what he does.

Jumping 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 that 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, that again 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 that throughout the decades of their existence they have the ability to play outside the box with style and flair.

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