It's hard to believe now, but there was a time when blues all but disappeared. Indeed, it was thanks to the dedication and perseverance of people like Alan Wilson that led to the 'blues revival' of the early sixties, when young white enthusiasts took to tracking down all-but-forgotten legends.
Wilson - nicknamed 'Blind Owl' by John Fahey due severe shortsightedness - didn't exactly fit the standard description of a bluesman. Slight and painfully shy, he nonetheless possessed an uncanny feel for the music, bringing to it an adventurous spirit in keeping with the times - Wilson passed away in 1970, at an all-too-young 27. An intuitive musician, he played guitar, harmonica, and sang in a high, reedy and distinctive style influenced by Skip James. Legend has it he also 're-taught' the recently rediscovered Son House to play his own music after a lengthy absence from music altogether.
Wilson was a founding member of Canned Heat, still together (albeit with numerous lineup changes) today. Known as much for Wilson's vocals as their choogling blues rhythms, they had a couple of significant hits and played at Woodstock, but Wilson's death saw the band fade from the charts.
Not surprisingly, Canned Heat's two hits appear on disc one. Both "On The Road Again" and "Goin' Up The Country," the latter becoming an unofficial anthem of the Woodstock experience, stand up surprisingly well. Performances may be rudimentary, but the freewheeling energy is undiminished, and the twists they give to fairly conventional blues structures, including the droning guitars, Wilson's distorted harmonica, and that uncanny voice - work on every level.
Not everything is quite as successful, of course, but there are genuine gems to found here. Wilson was a gifted songwriter as well as an inventive rhythm guitarist, and his harmonica work remains revelatory to this day. Spanning some five studio discs, with a handful from a 'best of' collection and a couple of odds and ends, selections feature both Henry Vestine and Harvey Mandel on guitar, with mainstays Larry Taylor and Adolfo De La Parra handling the bulk of the bass and drum duties respectively. A young Dr. John guests on piano on four tracks.
Highlights include a cover of Sonny Boy Williamson's "Help Me" that showcases Wilson's harmonica chops to excellent effect, and Wilson's own "An Owl Song," a jump-blues with superb interplay between horns, piano, and Wilson's squalling harp. Wilson's almost ethereal voice over the pounding jungle rhythms of "Change My Ways" sounds positively poignant in light of his untimely end. The driving boogie of "Do Not Enter" and the loping country blues of "Shake It And Break It" show Wilson's deep knowledge (he was an early scholar of the blues with several published articles on the music's seminal figures) as well as the band's ability to comfortably navigate a variety of styles.
Given the times, experimentation is to be expected, and disc one closes with "Nebulosity/Rollin' & Tumblin'/Five Owls," which finds a conventional shuffle bookended by otherworldy exploration. Longtime Heat Manager and producer Skip Taylor's notes sum this one up best: "Here are Alan's three parts of the nine part psychedelic, musical adventure known as "Parthenogenesis"... usually referring to a form of asexual reproduction, but here a solo reproduction of sound. Each band member could do whatever he wanted on his part without interference from the others. Alan tried to make his parts invoke a celestial, cloud like phenomenon." It seems reasonably safe to assume there were drugs involved.
Kicking off disc two is Wilson's slide guitar introduction to "Woodstock Boogie," recorded at the festival, though the song itself is absent. Tracks from Future Blues include "Skat," wherein Wilson does just that over a loose jam, as well as "London Blues," a true story of disillusion and disappointment based on an unfortunate encounter while on tour. The spacey "Poor Moon" shows Wilson's environmental consciousness, while "Pulling Hair Blues" reveal his growing frustration with life's tribulations.
The one-two punch of "Mean Old World," a classic blues grinder, and Wilson's own uncharacteristically optimistic "Human Condition" (written following an unsuccessful attempt at suicide and subsequent therapy, it was his final studio recording), seem to sum up the dichotomy that dogged Wilson's final days. It all comes to a close with "Childhood's End," Taylor's notes again encapsulating the song's intent best: "The final part of "Parthenogenesis," with Alan showing his talent and versatility while playing the chromatic harmonica to say 'goodbye' to the listener." Indeed.
It's not all essential, but Blind Owl is a fascinating glimpse into the musical mind of an eccentric but immense talent. There are moments that clearly belong in a hazy past, but a great deal of Wilson's music still sounds fresh and vital.
It's a shame that such a gentle genius was lost so soon. Blind Owl is a lovely and loving tribute, but it's also a vivid and revealing glimpse into a time of unprecedented musical exploration. A collection well worth spending time with ...!