Blues Bytes


May 2013

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Alan Wilson
The Blind Owl
Severn Records

Alan Wilson

Even though Alan Wilson has been dead for over 40 years, his impact on music, particularly blues and blues/rock, is still being felt. One of the founders of the venerable blues/rock group Canned Heat, the guitarist/harmonica player was also the man that Dick Waterman recruited in 1964 to teach the newly rediscovered Son House how to play his old songs. John Lee Hooker once said that Wilson “plays my music better than I knows it myself.”

Wilson was also the voice on Canned Heat’s biggest hits, “On The Road Again,” and the classic “Going Up The Country,” but despite his musical success, he was an awkward, tortured soul who battled depression and anxiety issues, themes he often touched on in his songwriting. He passed away in September, 1970, the victim of a drug overdose, at the age of 27.

It seems a bit surprising, given the wealth of talent that Wilson possessed, that a retrospective of his career has never been issued. That shortcoming has been rectified by Severn Records, who recently released a two-CD set, The Blind Owl (a nickname bestowed on the badly nearsighted Wilson by John Fahey), which features 20 tracks capturing Wilson’s finest moments with Canned Heat.

As might be expected, the group’s two big hits are present on this collection. “On The Road Again” was inspired by Chicago bluesman Floyd Jones and adapted by Wilson, whose unique high-pitched vocals and amazing harmonica are on full display. Wilson’s vocals are reminiscent of Skip James’ and were ideal for conveying the language of the blues….exuberance, pain, tragedy, and vulnerability.

“Going Up The Country,” an anti-Vietnam War song, was inspired by the melody of an ancient Henry Thomas song from the 1920s (“Bulldoze Blues”) and became the anthem for the Woodstock Generation. Other highlights include covers of Sonny Boy Williamson’s “Help Me,” Wilson’s debut as vocalist, an adaptation of Charley Patton’s “Shake It And Break It,” and “Mean Old World,” one of Wilson’s favorite old blues tunes. There are also some great opportunities to check out Wilson’s amazing musical gifts on guitar and harmonica, with tracks like “Alan’s Intro,” showcasing his slide guitar work, and the tracks from “Parthenogenesis,” a musical adventure where each member of the group was allowed to play unencumbered by the others.

Wilson’s own compositions were highly personal, often reflecting his awkwardness and shyness in dealing with everyday life. “My Mistake” and “Change My Ways” examined his social difficulties and attempts to rectify them. “Time Was,” one of Canned Heat’s most popular tunes, is about some of the band’s difficulties in getting along, and songs like “My Time Ain’t Long,” “Pulling Hair Blues,” and “Human Condition” (the last song Wilson recorded before his death) show Wilson’s battle with depression.

The Blind Owl is an excellent collection that captures Alan Wilson at his best as a musician, singer, and songwriter. Sadly, we will never know how great he could have been, but at least now we have a worthy retrospective of how good he, and the band he played in, were in their day and how overlooked they are in the modern era.

--- Graham Clarke
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