Tuesday, April 10, 2007

Canned Heat with Gatemouth

Canned Heat
Live at Montreux 1973
Eagle Eye 2-DVD set

The term blues-rocker is far over-used, but a band vouched for by John Lee Hooker and Clarence “Gatemouth” Brown can claim some real blues street cred. That was the case with Canned Heat, which is documented in performance on Live at Montreux 1973.

Heat showed their dedication to the blues at Montreux when they essentially served as “Gatemouth” Brown’s back-up band for a guest set within their own set. Ironically, Brown the bluesman eschewed the blues label, having also distinguished himself in jazz and country music. On four tunes, Brown is the unquestioned leader, featured on vocals, guitar, harmonica, and violin. Particularly interesting is his blues “Please Mr. Nixon,” which seems ripe for a conservative deconstructionist reading with lines like: “please don’t cut off that welfare line, so we can live good all the time.”

Montreux comes with a bonus documentary disk, relating the band’s history largely from the perspective (almost by necessity) of surviving drummer Fito De La Parra. Certainly among the highlight’s of their story are the Hooker n’ Heat sessions blessed with the badness of John Lee Hooker. The band members happened to meet their idol in the Portland airport whole both were on tour. Their former manager recalls arranging the resulting session:

“I called John up at Oakland and told him Canned Heat wanted to do a record with him, and we would use all of his songs, he would have all the writer-publisher money. We would also give him half the artist royalties, rather than splitting it. And it was a time in their career when they were a meaningful act and they were going to sell some records and reintroduce the world to John Lee Hooker.”

There are plenty of low-lights in the Heat story as well, many of which seem to palpably disgust De La Parra. Unfortunately, the band lost several members Behind the Music-style to a combination of drugs, booze, and chaos. The first band tragedy was the loss of Alan Wilson, the victim of depression, further alienated by his new found extremist views on the environment. As De La Parra observed: “He was very, very concerned with it [the environment], which became an obsession. You let something become and obsession—it can kill you, and that’s what Alan did.”

While Canned Heat might not have been the most charismatic band (we see front man Bob “the Bear” Hite hiking up his drawers more than anyone needs to), they took their blues influence seriously. They were in good form at Montreux, and “Gatemouth” Brown was as real as it gets.