Bluesfest: Canned Heat delivers rockin’ boogie blues

Canned Heat perform at Ottawa Bluesfest 2015. All photos by Terry Steeves.

The rain definitely did not deter folks from coming out on Friday night to see rock ‘n roll blues legends, Canned Heat. The scene was a colourful array of rain slickers and umbrellas which covered the area in front of Ottawa Bluesfest’s Monster Stage, and nearly all the way up the grassy slope.

Lead vocalist/harp player/ guitarist, Dale "Kingfish" Spalding.

In their 50-year career, Canned Heat haven’t slowed down their schedule and have continued to spread their brand of rockin’ boogie blues on stages across the world. Their rich musical heritage includes their earliest and unforgettable performances at the Monterey Pop Festival in 1967, and of course their headlining act at 1969’s Woodstock Festival.

The current band line-up consists of Dale “Kingfish” Spalding (lead vocals/harmonica/guitar), John “JP” Paulus (lead guitar/bass/vocals), Larry “The Mole” Taylor (bass/guitar/vocals), and Adolfo “Fito” de la Parra (drums/vocals). Taylor has been a member on and off since 1967, and de la Parra, who also joined Canned Heat in 1967, has remained on-board since day one, and is the band’s leader. I had a chance to chat with de la Parra, about his book, Living The Blues, full of tales and experiences of the band’s history. He also shared with me the early stages of the band’s evolution that would eventually define their sound:

Our first record was totally purist. It wasn’t all that popular and didn’t really sell. We changed our approach and decided to heavy up our sound…a sort of boogie woogie married with rock ‘n roll. The result was our second album, and we have evolved more to that style ever since. When we found our sound, we wanted to become the loudest band in the world. By the late 60‘s/early 70‘s, that‘s what a lot of bands were doing. Frank Cooley built these powerful amps for us called TNT‘s. We had the classic monster set-up…no earplugs…were were young, so our ears could take it! (laughs)

The show began with the iconic harmonica intro to one of their early hit classics, “On The Road Again” (Boogie With Canned Heat – 1969), followed up with more from that era, “Time Was” (Hallelujah – 1969), and “I’m Her Man”, from the same album, which had a wonderful jazzy spice and a catchy, upbeat tempo. De la Parra’s shuffling rhythm, blended with Taylor’s walking bassline, Paulus’ hot guitar licks, and Spalding’s tangy harp flavourings, set the crowd in motion.

“It’s time to go back to Woodstock…and by the way, it rained at Woodstock, too!” With that, they took us on a journey back in time with, “Going To The Country” (Living The Blues – 1968). The song defined the hippie movement era in its free-spirited and anti-establishment message, and became their biggest selling hit to date. Paulus took the lead on vocals, and I could see a mass of umbrellas bobbing up and down to the song’s rhythm.

John "JP" Paulus on guitar/bass/vocals and Adolfo "Fito" de la Parra on drums/vocals.

Another highlight came with “So Sad (The Worlds in a Tangle)” (Future Blues – 1970). I loved its recurring sinister-toned intro, and heavy rocking groove. De la Parra later spoke to me about this 5th album; one that featured personal heavy statements concerning environmental issues, and the last one Alan Wilson appeared on before he died:

Future Blues went out all the way for the environment. The album was banned for awhile because of the cover…an upside-down American flag being put into the ground on the moon by astronauts that depicted the Iwo Jima statue, and the earth all clouded up with pollution in the background. It became a classic because of its message. Wilson was deep into nature and the environment. Back then, there were no organizations like Greenpeace or anything like that. You were nothing but just a rebellious hippie if you spoke out about such issues.

“Let’s Work Together”, swept the crowd into more energetic dance moves with its swampy rocking blues, and later in their rendition of “Let The Good Times Roll”, a special guest appearance was made by Ottawa’s blues guitarist, JW Jones. The song’s changing intensities, each player’s soloing turn at bat, and sudden swerves to and from the main melody, produced swells of cheering from the audience.

By the end, both the crowd and the band had just seemed to be warming up when the short hour came to an end. I felt incredibly fortunate to have witnessed the combined forces of these 4 men, whose vast playing experience and immense talents showcased the legacy of their work, and brought back a little bit of Woodstock on a wonderfully rainy afternoon.