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NIGHT LIFE THE CLUB SCENE

Old Flame : Blues rockers Canned Heat have been around for about 25 years, but they may just be warmin' up.

May 16, 1991|BILL LOCEY | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Are you ready for the Beatles featuring Ringo Starr and that's it? How about the Byrds starring original drummer Michael Clarke and a bunch of no-names? Or maybe the Rolling Stones with Charlie Watts on drums and no Mick and Keith? What's wrong with these scenarios?

Those veteran blues and boogie rockers from the psychedelic '60s, Canned Heat, will be at the venerable Ventura Theatre on Friday night led by drummer Fito de la Parra. There the similarity ends. It won't be like the Beatles, the Byrds or the Stones with not enough Beatles, Byrds or Stones. Because Canned Heat, a band that's been around 25 years, manages to keep its fans rockin' no matter who's in the lineup.

Harvey Mandel, not Henry (The Sunflower) Vestine, will be playing guitar. Although Vestine was the original player, it was Mandel who played Woodstock with the band and has been a member more years than not. Original bassist Larry (The Mole) Taylor doesn't tour much anymore, so he'll be replaced by Ron Shumake. James Thornburg sings. The first two singers, Alan (The Blind Owl) Wilson and Bob (The Bear) Hite, are gone. Wilson died in the early '70s and Hite in the early '80s. Yet, Canned Heat lives and continues to provide those memorable hits, including "On the Road Again," "Goin' Up the Country" and "Let's Get Together," that live long and prosper on "classic rock" radio.

"Bob Hite and Alan Wilson started Canned Heat in 1966 as a jug band, just to have fun," De la Parra said in a recent telephone interview. "Both of them were musicologists, record collectors, not musicians. I joined in 1967 and was on the second album, 'Boogie With Canned Heat,' which was our most successful. I was looking at my scrapbook the other day and my first gig with Canned Heat was in Long Beach with The Doors.

"The name Canned Heat came from an old blues song called 'Canned Heat Woman.' I think it's a great name and it really applies to us. We're going to make a strong comeback in the '90s."

It will also be a strong comeback to Ventura. Canned Heat knows the way here, having played the now-defunct Back Door on Front Street in 1968, Ventura College a year later and a hippie revival show at the County Fairgrounds in 1985.

About half a million fans showed up to see the band in New York a year after the Back Door gig. Think of the traffic jam the Woodstock festival would have caused on Front Street.

"I remember a lot about Woodstock," De la Parra said. "I mean, the arrival itself was very impressive. We landed in a helicopter and seeing half a million people was amazing. The ovation we got--I believe we had the biggest ovation, and Rolling Stone later confirmed this--was tremendous. We really did it to them."

Canned Heat has been doing it to a lot of people for a long time. There have been 25 tours of Europe, 16 tours of Mexico, plus countless festivals and television appearances. They even played for the president of Mexico.

"We had to play this gig so the promoter could get the necessary permits for us to tour. So there we were in the Presidential Palace in Mexico City playing for the president and all his cronies, all his ambassadors and all his guards, and Alan Wilson was really spaced out. He set his guitar down on this big cake--he thought it was the table."

At the Ventura County Fairgrounds gig, there was a very different crowd. Many of the fans turned out to be bikers. In fact, the band itself looked like a bunch of bikers--big guys with beards wearing Harley-Davidson shirts.

"Canned Heat has always appealed to the biker element, and I'm very grateful for that," De la Parra said.

"In the late '70s, when disco was taking over, if it hadn't have been for biker support, we probably would've disappeared. Bikers actually treat us better than your average promoter."

The dreaded disco featured plenty of synthesized, formulaic music with plenty of moneymaking potential. It featured drum machines and all manner of musical fakery that perhaps reached its nadir in the Milli Vanilli fiasco.

"When disco began and all this electronics started to take the place of live musicians, Bob Hite became very, very depressed," De la Parra said. "His emotional life was all messed up . . . and he was abusing drugs and alcohol. He told me many times that he wanted to die--it was a drug-induced suicide."

De la Parra, as the longest surviving member, inherited the band when Hite died. At the time of his death in 1981, Hite had one of the ultimate blues record collections.

"Some of the best stuff was sold to Dr. Demento, Barry Hansen, who also happened to be our first roadie," De la Parra said.

Canned Heat is working on its 26th album (to be titled "Internal Combustion") following the success of last year's "Reheated." The band also played on John Lee Hooker's Grammy Award-winning 1990 album, "The Healer."

"That was our third album with Hooker," De la Parra said. "He is the blues. He says we are the best band at playing his music. That's the truth. It's a fact. We've studied his music over the years--he's one of our main influences."

Their own music, De la Parra said, is a marriage of country blues and rock 'n' roll.

"Right now, we are assembling a fantastic album. It will be a major effort by us to come back to the mainstream. It will be all done by us, no synthesizers. I'd be happy if it made the Top 100--it doesn't have to make the Top 10."

Opening for Canned Heat will be hot blues dudes Randy Rich & the Ravens. It all begins at 9 p.m.

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