Skip to main content
  1. AXS Entertainment
  2. Arts & Entertainment
  3. Music

100 Years of Robert Johnson: An epiphany from the Big Head Blues Club

See also

100 Years of Robert Johnson by Big Head Blues Club

Rating:
Star5
Star
Star
Star
Star

Biting off a piece of Robert Johnson for his 100th birthday celebration is a monolithic task, but this album is a startlingly soulful tribute. Todd Park Mohr is the man we have all known for years as Big Head Todd, and his vocals are as true to the antique classic blues as they come. It takes a young man with an old soul to sing into life the kind of magic that Robert Johnson created with his songs. After all, Johnson died at the tender age of twenty-seven, reportedly the victim of murderous poisoning at the hands of a jealous husband. Johnson had paid undue attention to his wife. It is not the youth that comes through in Robert Johnson's vocals so much as the age of his soul, yet tender vocal chords are required to make the kind of melancholy breaks that echo heartfelt pain.

When news came around that Big Head Todd and the Monsters had gone blues, there was room for reasonable doubt. After all, there is a raging argument in the blues centers of the world, Kansas City, Chicago, New Orleans, about “what is blues?” versus “what is rock?” More than a few rock bands have tried to tap into the blues crowd only to be rebuffed by purists. Perhaps you remember Big Head Todd as a nineties pop band with tunes like “Bittersweet” and “Broken Hearted Savior”. And maybe you remember the turn of the millennium as a terrible time for blues recordings, most of them getting the corny, overproduced sheen that had been spurred on by advances in recording technology in that era. There was a lot to be learned about ProTools software, space age studio microphones, and digital tracking before blues could be recorded well again. The good news is that Big Head Todd and his crew actually get it.

Mohr was in no way trying to copy Johnson directly, but he has retained the physical tenderness of voice to copy Johnson's soulfulness vocally. When he spoke of his introduction to the blues, Mohr said, “I’d always heard the more aggressive versions of Robert’s more popular songs, but in studying his singing, guitar playing, and the songs themselves, I experienced a blues enlightenment. There is a rich complexity, a vulnerability and humanness throughout the Delta blues traditions that is often overlooked. In a way, the Delta blues that Johnson represented is really the blood and guts of everything else that followed. So for me it’s kind of getting back to that marrow, and luckily we had a producer who really understood blues music.” Those producers who can bend modern technology to enunciate rather plasticize blues are still a rare breed, but Mohr found the genuine article in Grammy award winning blues producer Chris Goldsmith.

The album is entitled 100 Years of Robert Johnson, and it will be released on March 1, 2011. It is not just an outstanding example of a newly formed blues man, however. It's also filled to the brim with blues legends. The artists who collaborated and contributed to this album include B.B. King, Hubert Sumlin, Honeyboy Edwards and Charlie Musselwhite, as well as keepers of the blues flame Ruthie Foster, Cedric Burnside and Lightnin’ Malcolm. If they could have raised Robert Johnson from the dead, he would have been there too. When you hear these tracks, you will realize that they succeeded in prying away Johnson's soul from a covetous devil for long enough to breathe fiery life into his songs once again.

The location of the summoning was Ardent Studios in Memphis, Tennessee. You will have a chance to get a glimpse of some of the blues legends involved, recreating their ancient sorcery as they tour in support of the album nationally. The songs are all Robert Johnson blues classics: “Come On In My Kitchen” and “Last Fair Deal Gone Done” (both featuring blues harp master Musselwhite), “Kind Hearted Woman” (with Foster), “If I Had Possession Over Judgement Day” (spotlighting the 95-year-old Edwards), “Cross Road Blues,” also known as “Crossroads” (with the legendary B.B. King), and “When You Got a Good Friend” (featuring Foster and Sumlin, best known as the guitarist for the late Howlin’ Wolf). The album is filled out with rousing, gutsy workouts on “Ramblin’ On My Mind,” “Preachin’ Blues,” “All My Love is Love in Vain” (performed solo by Mohr on vocal and acoustic guitar) and a bonus track of “Sweet Home Chicago, ” performed by Edwards and Musselwhite sans additional accompaniment. Cedric Burnside (grandson of the great bluesman R.L. Burnside) plays drums on “If I Had Possession Over Judgement Day”and “Preachin’ Blues,” and acoustic guitar on “Ramblin’ On My Mind.” Lightnin’ Malcolm plays electric guitar on “Ramblin’ On My Mind,” “When You Got a Good Friend” and “If I Had Possession Over Judgement Day,” plus acoustic guitar on “Preachin’ Blues” and “Kind Hearted Woman.”

If there is a down point on the album, it would have to be the bonus track, “Sweet Home Chicago”. There is something worth while about the feeling of the tune, and certainly it is difficult to throw away any recording that includes Charlie Musselwhite's harmonica, which has inspired a generation of blues harp enthusiasts on its own. However, the version of “Sweet Home Chicago” tacked on to the end of the album sounds like a drunken fiasco. It grants the listener a feeling of peering into a jam session between a couple of blues greats who have been singing and stomping and drinking heavily until only the raw bones of their talents remain. The ambiance of the song is great, but the execution sounds purely inebriated. This eccentricity can easily be forgiven, however, in light of the fact that the rest of the album is a bonafide masterpiece which is sure to thrust Big Head Todd Mohr and his long time band mates, bassist Rob Squires, drummer Brian Nevin, and keyboardist Jeremy Lawton, into the top echelons of modern blues artists.

For Todd Mohr and producer Chris Goldsmith, the main challenge in recording the tribute was to give new voice to Johnson’s music, and to avoid copying the countless cover versions already proliferating throughout the universal blues consciousness. “In so many of the takes on Robert’s stuff, you don’t get the depth of emotion that’s in the lyrics and in Robert’s voice. That’s one thing that Chris and the band and my voice were able to bring to it,” Mohr reflected. “Chris had great ideas about how to represent the stuff, and all the musicians were just so good at what they did, the unique arrangements just came naturally.” Mohr says that Johnson’s lyrics are especially inspirational to him in that “There’s something about the honesty of it that’s really powerful... You don’t get that feeling from commercial culture—what it’s like to be a human being both good and bad. Its candor is very appealing and refreshing because it speaks to the human condition. The language that Robert used to express it was really poetic and well crafted.” Mohr also rediscovered the complexity of Johnson’s guitar work while making the recording. “It is astounding; his playing really is incredible,” he says. “When you try to play his stuff you realize how involved it really is. The compositions feature many skipped beats and bars along with other extra twists that make it really special.” Which of course adds a wrinkle to rearranging a classic blues tune. A new arrangement must have not only the true feeling of the original to be recognized, but some of the same quirks that make the song itself unique. The group did an inspired job of delivering truly innovative versions of each of Johnson's songs without losing their classic integrity.

Beyond being a great album for listeners who already love the blues, this is the release of this album could be the kind of musical event that the modern music world is waiting for. Most of today's music is patently synthetic and generic to such a point that a new generation is growing up with, for the first time in recorded history, a great segment of its population believing that they simply don't care for music—any kind of music. They have not been exposed to any music that holds meaning for them, they hear nothing on the radio, television, or internet that touches their souls. If the Big Head Blues Club, as the loose consortium of musicians involved have called themselves, gets this album in front of enough people, it could honestly inspire a lasting change in popular music that could put the soul back into modern life.

Track Listing:

1. Come On In My Kitchen
2. Ramblin' On My Mind
3. When You Got A Good Friend
4. Cross Road Blues
5. Preachin' Blues

6. Kind Hearted Woman
7. If I Had Possession Over Judgement Day
8. Last Fair Deal Gone Done
9. All My Love Is Love In Vain
10. Sweet Home Chicago

To find out more about the project, check out the website: http://www.BigHeadTodd.com/

Don't miss the tour of this incredible combination of unmatched blues legends:

Confirmed Big Head Blues Club Tourdates

Friday, January 28

Regency Center Grand Ballroom

San Francisco CA

Saturday, January 29

Orange County Performing Arts Center

Costa Mesa CA

Sunday, January 30

Anthology

San Diego CA

Monday, January 31

University of California - Santa Barbara
Campbell Hall

Santa Barbara CA

Friday, February 4

Paramount Theatre

Austin TX

Saturday, February 5

Lakewood Theatre

Dallas TX

Thursday, February 10

University Of Michigan, Hill Auditorium

Ann Arbor MI

Friday, February 11

Orchestra Hall

Chicago IL

Saturday, February 12

Uptown Theater

Kansas City MO

Sunday, February 13

Mississippi State University Riley Center

Meridian MS

Wednesday, February 16

University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill
Memorial Hall

Chapel Hill NC

Thursday, February 17

The Music Center at Strathmore

North Bethesda MD

Friday, February 18

Berklee Performance Center

Boston MA

Thursday, February 24

The Ridgefield Playhouse

Ridgefield CT

Friday, February 25

McCarter Theatre Center

Princeton NJ

Saturday, February 26

Montgomery County Community College
The Science Center Theater

Blue Bell PA

Sunday, February 27

Zeiterion Performing Arts Center

New Bedford MA

Friday, March 4

Potawatomi Bingo Casino
Northern Light Theater

Milwaukee WI

Saturday, March 5

Holland Performing Arts Center

Omaha NE

Sunday, March 6

Orchestra Hall

Minneapolis MN

Tuesday, March 8

University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign
Krannert Center - Tryon Festival Theatre

Urbana IL

Comments

Advertisement