Canned Heat, featuring Clarence "Gatemouth" Brown – Live at Montreux 1973 (2011)

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Canned Heat, the doomed boogie-blues revivalists, only made a lone appearance at the legendary Montreux Jazz Festival. Yet they still managed some star-crossed magic.

By 1973, co-frontman Alan “Blind Owl” Wilson had already tragically passed, an overdose victim at just 27. Stepping in, however, with Bob “The Bear” Hite and the rest of his Delta-rocking brethren was Clarence “Gatemouth” Brown, giving this recording a vibrating once-in-a-lifetime specialness.

Already huge festival draws, after signature appearances at Monterey Pop in 1967 and Woodstock in 1969, this Los Angeles-based unit didn’t have much to prove at this point. Yet Canned Heat remained present and joyfully engaged, egged on no doubt by the outsized personality of the late multi-instrumentalist Brown.

Bone-deep lovers of this music, Canned Heat had already collaborated with John Lee Hooker, Johnny Otis, Dr. John and Little Richard on previous projects. So, Brown’s appearance was no surprise. It’s the way he energized the band that makes this album a must-have for fans not only of Canned Heat and of Gatemouth, but of the blues.

Listen, as Brown sparks Canned Heat toward an inspired run through its original “Worried Life Blues,” a tune punctuated by these back-firing, honking blurts of harmonica brilliance from Hite. Jessie Hill’s Gulf Coast sing-along “About My Ooh Poo Pa Doo” — which Brown introduces as “an old hymn,” before asking for the audience to join in because “you’re holding back much more than you are telling” — becomes this break-neck romp. They play it at double time, like a party that’s swung gloriously out of control.

The last of the featured songs with Gatemouth Brown is a bubbling, slow-boil take on Lou Donaldson’s “Funky,” which almost turns into a showcase for his smoke-filled, open-hearted vocal — until Hite rejoins the proceedings, hitting a high note on the harp that elevates the tune into the ether. Guitarist Henry Vestine intertwines brilliantly with pianist Ed Beyer, before Brown returns with one of his signature talking-slide solos.

[SOMETHING ELSE! INTERVIEW: Our long-awaited SER Sitdown with blues legend Clarence “Gatemouth” Brown didn’t go exactly as we had planned.]

For all of that, though, the highlight of Brown’s appearance remains the topical “Please Mr. Nixon,” a Brown original and the first of four collaborations across the 10-song set that makes up Live at Montreux 1973, scheduled for release on Aug. 23 by Eagle Records. Vestine, dead after a bout with cancer in 1997, is this brawny presence, playing with a side-street Chicago menace before Brown takes a impish turn on the fiddle.

That burst of humor, verve and old-school street cred from Gatemouth, who passed much later in the wake of Hurricane Katrina’s devastation to his adopted home in south Louisiana, propels the rest of the album.

Hite is gone too, of course, dead at 36 after a suffering a post-gig heart attack in Hollywood. Drummer Aldolpho “Fito” de la Parra, featured here, continues the Canned Heat legacy today.

Elsewhere, Live at Montreux 1973 features two of this group’s most memorable tunes, the Floyd Jones redo “On the Road Again,” which went to No. 16 on America’s Billboard charts and No. 8 in the UK in 1968; and Hite’s groovy, uplifting take on Wilbert Harrison’s “Let’s Work Together,” No. 26 in the U.S. and No. 3 in Britain in 1970. Canned Heat’s biggest stateside hit was 1968’s “Going Up the Country” which, again, was a reworking of an old blues tune; it went to No. 11 in America — while only reaching No. 19 in the UK.

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Nick DeRiso

Nick DeRiso

Nick DeRiso has written for USA Today, American Songwriter, All About Jazz, and a host of others. Honored as columnist of the year five times by the Associated Press, Louisiana Press Association and Louisiana Sports Writers Association, he oversaw a daily section named Top 10 in the U.S. by the AP before co-founding Something Else! Nick is now associate editor of Ultimate Classic Rock.
Nick DeRiso
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