The most unknown member of the tragic '27 Club' of famed artists to perish at the age of 27, Canned Heat's Alan Wilson, like Nick Drake (who didn't even make it to 27), suffered from lifelong depression and anxiety. This brought on an overdose of barbituates in an apparent suicide that rang the curtain down on a brilliant musician's life. Named 'Blind Owl' because of nearsightedness almost to the point of blindness, Wilson was also painfully shy and awkward but nonetheless possessed of a sharp mind and even taught his good buddy John Fahey music theory so Fahey could finish a master's thesis on Charlie Patton. Wilson also was recruited to re-teach Son House his own licks because the blues legend had forgotten the compendium he'd played between 1930-1942. Wilson knew them dead cold and was thrilled to be able to work with the aging blues legend. He was well versed not only in the original blues and music theory but also pursued an avid interest in environmentalism as well, and a thick book on botany was his constant companion while touring with the band.
That he's recognized as a musician par excellence is undisputed, and this compendium, The Blind Owl, is a superb testament to that. Al penned the immortal Goin' up to the Country and co-wrote Canned Heat's other most memorable hit, On the Road Again, both of them contained here, anthems for the Woodstock Generation. That's also him singing in the Skip James style he loved. Wilson preferred to play rhythm guitar and bottleneck, so you're treated to Al Vestine and Harvey Mandel on lead duties on both discs…and Harvey's one of the most under-recognized blues players from the period (him, Dick Weigand, and others). Wilson also shared a love of experimentation in common with Peter Green, T.S. McPhee, and other of the more adventurous bluesers, shown here in Nebulosity / Rollin' & Tumblin' / Five Owls, a medley that's actually far more something George Harrison would've included in his Wonderwall…or might even have shown up as something one of the Youngbloods would have ventured in any of their quasi-avant-oriented solo LP's on a particularly stoned day.
It's waaaaaaay past time Wilson was finally treated to a long neglected recognition. Skip Taylor and Michael Leddy contribute six pages of liner notes that are alternatingly exhilarating and depressing, the reader's heart going out to the tormented young artist who, it was clear, would not last long in this callous world, but the music…oh man! Al helped hugely in launching what became a group that never stopped recording or touring through a succession of members that's staggering, one of the most prolific ever in rock. Take a look at the band's page in Wikipedia—unreal! Had Wilson not been present during that key founding period, however, the chances are very good Canned Heat might never have made it past a couple of LPs. Every single cut here illustrates that in spades, and even I wasn't aware how predominantly his writing contributed to their output.
Edited by: David N. Pyles
Copyright 2013, Peterborough Folk Music Society.
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