Big Head Blues Club (featuring Big Head Todd & the Monsters) – 100 Years of Robert Johnson

January 01, 1970

(Big Records)


On the one hand, you’ve got a jam band that has admittedly dabbled in
blues now and again paying tribute to one of the icons of 20th Century music. On the other hand, you’ve got some of the most oft-covered songs
in the repertoire of said icon, who admittedly didn’t exactly record a ton of
material in the first place. Train wreck? Well, you could wait at the station
in vain for signs of disaster, though you’re not getting a gleaming Diesel-powered
engine, either.


Big Head Todd and the Monsters have survived 25 years with the same
original trio (augmented somewhere along the line by keyboardist Jeremy Lawton,
who might be their most talented member) with only a brief touch of
monster-sized popularity back in 1993 when Sister
rode the syncopated backs of jamsters like the Spin Doctors to help
show the alternative rock world of the day that it wasn’t all just grunge. To
their fans, they are a creative jam band with jazz, blues, and pop influences
rolled into one tasteful sandwich; frankly, to most everybody else, they are
the answer to a Jeopardy question regarding strange band names for $100, Alex.


Robert Johnson is no trivial bluesman. In fact, he might just be the
only Delta player of the ‘30s who could be named by the average American with a
minimum of prodding. Ever since a young Eric Clapton discovered him back in
early ‘60s London, before it was really swinging, Johnson has been the go-to
source of blues authenticity for rock artists – it’s entirely possible to view
this album as a collection of songs by the Steve Miller Band, the Allman
Brothers Band, Cream, the Gun Club, Johnny Winter, Eric Clapton, the Rolling
Stones, and the Butterfield Blues Band. While purists may argue whether or not
Charlie Patton was actually better than Johnson, nobody can make any kind of
case that Johnson wasn’t stunning. (And, as the remastering of ancient
recordings gets better and better, Johnson has benefited on recent reissues
more than any bluesman from being able to be heard as clear as if he was
sitting in the same room.)


Big Head Todd and the Monsters don’t quite have the gumption to tackle
ten familiar Robert Johnson songs without backup, so they invite guest-stars
from the blues world as famous as B.B. King, as revered as Hubert Sumlin and
Charlie Musselwhite, as elderly and original as David “Honeyboy” Edwards, and
as up and coming as Cedric Burnside, Lightning Malcolm, and Ruthie Foster.
Since the standard blues mode for the Monsters is somewhat of a laid-back
groove, the guests chip in some needed pizzazz, though Todd Park Mohr can’t
help himself from edging other vocalists aside a little too often.


Mohr’s voice is the key to enjoying the album. Squint the ears a bit,
and you can convince yourself he sounds like a cross between a young Steve
Marriott and a young Rod Stewart, but seriously, he just doesn’t have the
emotional conviction to maintain that illusion. Mohr sings and plays guitar all
by his lonesome on “All My Love’s In Vain,” but he either can’t understand or
he doesn’t know how to convey the devastation of learning that train’s
departure from the station means everything you knew about love was wrong.
Trading verses with B.B. King on “Cross Road Blues” is a simply unfair game,
something like letting Albert Pujols bat off a high school pitcher. Mohr
handles himself much better on “When You Got a Good Friend” and “Kind Hearted
Woman,” wherein he duets with Ruthie Foster, who supports him nicely and allows
him to sound enraptured by the songs.


The arrangements on the record are all interesting, and sometimes
downright convincing. “Last Fair Deal Gone Down” finds the band and harmonica
player Charlie Musselwhite creating a darkly atmospheric mood which turns to an
exciting release as they double time the last verse or two. Lightnin’ Malcolm
ups the ante of every song on which he contributes guitar parts – this is a guy
who doesn’t have a respectful bone in his body, just a love of all the blues he
missed out on by being so young. Closing the album with a duet between David
“Honeyboy” Edwards and Musselwhite is interesting. At this point in his long
life, Edwards is virtually impossible to understand as a singer, but is
rhythmically and melodically as unique and inventive as ever on guitar.


Big Head Todd and the Monsters have no qualms jumping head over heels
into a pool where they’ve only dipped their toes before, and they should be
applauded for that. It may not make for the best blues record of the year, but
it’s not at all unpleasant, and at times a real pleasure.


DOWNLOAD: “Last Fair Deal
Gone Down,” “When You Got a Good Woman,” “Cross Road Blues.” STEVE PICK


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