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Get a Haircut: The original Canned Heat promotional photo. Only Fito de la Parra (second from left) remains.

Hot Stuff

There's plenty of fire left in psychedelic blues-rock band Canned Heat at the Metro Fountain Blues Festival

By Jim Harrington

THE IMAGES are etched permanently on the collective rock & roll psyche: Jimi Hendrix bleeding red, white and blues with a revolutionary take on "The Star-Spangled Banner," Joe Cocker trumping the Beatles on a quaking version of the Fab Four's "With a Little Help From My Friends," Jefferson Airplane producing puke-worthy psychedelic poetry on "White Rabbit."

Yet the song that forever speaks "Woodstock" to a couple million folks who experienced the so-called "Three Days of Peace and Music" at Max Yasgur's farm in upstate New York--via the cinema--is undoubtedly Canned Heat's "Going Up the Country."

Sure, those other tunes, especially the Hendrix number, had more historic relevance. But on film, it was "Going Up the Country," with its wickedly addictive flute riff, that made the festival look like a trip worth taking. Otherwise, don't eat the brown acid.

It's interesting but not out of the ordinary that the theme song for what some would call a defining moment in rock history came from a blues band. Genres freely cohabitated in the 1960s--the Rolling Stones introducing a whole new generation to old blues masters; Muddy Waters getting praised by pop mags in London; and white rockers performing Chicago barroom favorites to hippies across the country.

Out of that mad musical melting pot came Canned Heat, which has somehow managed to survive the era and will headline the free Metro Fountain Blues Festival at San Jose State University on Saturday. Beyond the Heat, this 24th annual affair, held at the college's San Carlos Plaza, also features hot licks from Otis Taylor, Lady Bianca and Band, the J.C. Smith Band, the Shane Dwight Band and Ron Hacker and the Hacksaws. Although the appearance by acclaimed acoustic bluesman Taylor will draw many enthusiasts, the biggest crowds will turn out to see if there is any fire left in Canned Heat.

The band was formed in 1966 in Los Angeles by two obsessive record collectors, Alan "Blind Owl" Wilson and Bob "The Bear" Hite, who borrowed the group's name from a 1928 recording by Tommy Johnson. Beginning with its self-titled debut release in 1967 (the year of the Summer of Love), Canned Heat would help write the soundtrack to the late '60s and early '70s with such big pop hits as "On the Road Again," "Let's Work Together" and "Going Up the Country." Although a favorite with shaggy rock fans, the Heat was a jam-oriented blues band at heart, as anyone who has listened to all 40 minutes of the opus "Refried Boogie, Parts I and II" can attest.

But Canned Heat did more than just play the blues. The band lived them as well. The group entered the '70s on a high note, releasing two strong efforts with Future Blues and Hooker n' Heat, which, as one would correctly assume, paired the band with its idol, John Lee Hooker. But the music would soon change when Wilson, the distinctively high-pitched vocalist and soulful guitarist, took his own life in 1970.

Shattered, the band moved on and managed to release a few, fairly well received albums like One More River to Cross in the '70s.

Unfortunately, tragedy would continue to stalk the band as its other founder, Hite, died of a heart attack in 1981. Fretman Henry "The Sunflower" Vestine, one of the group's original members, died in Paris in 1997, shortly after playing his last notes during the band's final gig of a European tour.

Despite these deaths, however, the music of Canned Heat has survived into the 21st century, thanks to a variety of sources. The classic songs have been featured in such films as Forrest Gump and have been used in television commercials to pimp everything from Miller Beer to Chevrolets. And, with a little help from its friends, Canned Heat is still making new music in the new millennium. Anchored by drummer Adolfo "Fito" de la Perra, a member since 1967, the band's recently released, cleverly named Friends in the Can is a surprisingly worthy CD of collaborations with blues giants Taj Mahal, Roy Rogers, Corey Stevens and Walter Trout. Old friend and deceased Bay Area legend John Lee Hooker is even featured on the record.

It's not a new gig for the band to collaborate with such icons--over the years Canned Heat has worked with the likes of John Mayall and Little Richard. And the result isn't new either. Friends in the Can is a fine boogie-woogie blues album that would have pleased the fans back at Woodstock. The new music should also appeal to the folks at the slightly smaller festival being held this Saturday in San Jose. Just remember not to eat the brown acid.

The Metro Fountain Blues Festival happens Saturday (May 8) at San Carlos Plaza at San Jose State University. The event is free and begins at 1pm. For more information call 408.924.6262.

Performance times are approximate. If there's any daylight or energy left after Canned Heat, expect to hear a jam session featuring members of the other bands.

1pm: Ron Hacker and the Hacksaws
2pm: Shane Dwight Band
3pm: JC Smith Band
4pm: Lady Bianca and Band
5pm: Otis Taylor
6:15pm: Canned Heat

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From the May 5-11, 2004 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

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