One of the delights of blogging is the sense of sharing interests and passions with people around the globe. This is especially true of music with its capacity to cross boundaries, cultures and even language. Now and then I’ll bring up the map of the world showing number of views (by country) depicted in varying shades of pink. The numbers may be modest but the spread is fascinating.
Naturally enough, the big players are the writer’s country and the home of the brave, followed by other english-speaking lands (including, at a stretch, Wales). But who would have thought that Brazil would edge New Zealand out of the top ten? Or that Indonesia and Ireland are locked in an arm wrestle at 36th?
A while ago while browsing through the weekly totals, clicking on each little bar and glancing at the country list corresponding to that chunk of time I noticed something interesting. I’d expected that pretty much every ladder would be topped by either Australia or the USA but to my surprise and delight, it was not so. Sure, those two dominate, but there was much more variety than expected. An idea for a new series* was born.
What about a series of posts, I thought, highlighting an album from the country that topped the views for a particular week? It would honour the readers from that country and prompt further delving into the Vinyl Connection collection. Let’s do it!
Where to start? It has to be the home of the blues and the birthplace of rock and roll, doesn’t it?
Without embarking on a long and complicated history of popular music, it is worth remembering how the sixties blues revival in the US was sparked not by American musicians, but by British bands like the Rolling Stones who “discovered”, admired and copied the blues greats, then took the music back to its roots.
This is wonderfully illustrated by the classic story from the Stones first ever visit to the US. With some excitement, they asked reporters about the whereabouts of Muddy Waters, a major influence and provider of the band’s name, assuming that such a key blues figure would be well known. To their dismay, one of the reporters asked, “Muddy Waters? Where’s that?”.
Ultimately, however, the welcome result of this export/import process was rediscovery and reappraisal of America’s blues roots.
One young music scholar with a penchant for the blues was Alan “Blind Owl” Wilson, a young white man from Massachusetts who co-founded Canned heat with fellow record collector Bob Hite. Canned Heat had considerable success in the late sixties with hits including “On the Road Again” and “Goin’ Up the Country”. Their enthusiasm for—nay, devotion to—the blues was well known, leading to a connection with country blues legend John Lee Hooker. At that time, Hooker was not known for the chooglin’ boogie that so informed Canned Heat’s music. John Lee usually performed and recorded with his guitar, an old amp, and a wooden floor to stomp on. But that did not deter Wilson, Hite and their fellow Heat members from setting up a recording date in May 1970 to accompany John Lee Hooker on a new recording.
The result was Hooker ’n Heat, a double album that showcases the blues legend with a vigour and immediacy that is palpable some fifty years on. The respect Wilson et al had for Mr Hooker is amply demonstrated in both the title and the music of this fabulous album. Placing Hooker’s name first was a clear mark of respect. Giving him most of the first record as an (almost) solo platform was an act of generosity and acknowledgement. Ironically, it began a steady rise in popularity for the bluesman that was not reflected in the career of Canned Heat. But that’s another story.
Hooker’s sparse, rhythmic boogie shines on the ten songs of the first disc. His unique style is front and centre. As Pete Welding observed in the liner notes to the 1991 re-issue,
John Lee was not the easiest performer to accompany; he stretched lines out beyond their expected length, changed chords only and when he was moved to, extemporised lines, phrases and whole choruses, and so on. Hooker’s approach to music was extraordinarily spontaneous and fluid.
Yet the accompaniment by members of the Heat is consistently deft, enhancing the songs with Wilson’s subtle harmonica or, later in the set, Henry Vestin’s guitar.
Across the two discs, there is a slow but steady increase in intensity as Wilson adds piano as well as harmonica before the whole band lurches into “Whiskey and Wimmen’”, the third cut on disc two. It’s here that we really get to hear the infectious boogie that Hooker is often remembered for (as, indeed, are Canned Heat!). “Let’s Make It” struts, “Just You and Me” moans and sways (and Vestine shines)… The album climax is the eleven minute version of signature Hooker tune “Boogie Chillen No.2” which cooks like well-stocked barbecue. If your feet aren’t stomping in time by this point, Jack you dead.
Hooker ’n Heat is a timeless blues album that bridges the past (Hooker’s country blues) with late-60s blues-rock, influencing much music that followed. Definitely one of those 101 More Albums You Need To Hear Before Your Turntable Dies.**
* Vinyl Connection is known for beginning lots and lots of series/themes with a flourish, series which inevitably peter out well before the material is exhausted. I blame the need for gainful employment (and a magpie like capacity to be distracted by shiny objects).
** A new page (just under the banner, or here) has been added to collect these posts. Have a dip!