Your Complete Guide to the Chicago Blues Scene
BIG HEAD BLUES CLUB
With Mud Morganfield, Billy Branch, Ronnie Baker Brooks & Erica Brown
Presents: The Songs of Willie Dixon
Presents: The Songs of Willie Dixon
November 2, 2016
Arcada Theatre, St. Charles, IL
By Linda Cain
Photos: Dianne Bruce Dunklau (except where
Photos: Dianne Bruce Dunklau (except where noted)
What happens when two once-in-a-lifetime events converge on the same night at the same time in Chicagoland – one a unique alliance of blues and rock superstars and the other a team of baseball superstars playing the World Series for the first time in 71 years? And not just any blues stars or sports stars, but OUR very own Chicago beloved hometown heroes? What’s a Chicago blues lover to do? Choose between the Cubs or the blues? It was enough to give you the blues!
Ron Onesti, Arcada Theater owner and concert promoter, did his best to give the best of both worlds to blues fans and Cubs fans by showing the World Series game on two giant screens in the theater with the sound turned down during the concert. He explained that normally they would never disrespect the artists by interfering with their performance, but in this case an exception was truly called for. Of course the audience, many clad in Cubs attire, appreciated it. The excitement in the air was palpable. The musicians took it in stride; it was often hard to distinguish when the audience’s bursts of cheers and applause were directed at the Cubs or for the incredibly talented artists on stage. Nevertheless, throughout over two hours of nonstop, top-notch blues performances, the crowd continued to show their love to the artists on stage with much robust applause and well-deserved standing ovations.
Big Head Todd & The Monsters is a major rock act on the jam band and festival circuit, known for inspired, eclectic jams and soulful ballads, such as hits like: “Bittersweet,” “It’s Alright,” “Broken Hearted Savior,” and “Please Don’t Tell Her I Love Her.” They recorded a rockin’ cover of “Boom Boom” with John Lee Hooker that hit the charts in 1998. In 2011, the first edition of The Big Head Blues Club celebrated Robert Johnson’s Centennial with a CD and tour featuring late blues legends Hubert Sumlin and Honeyboy Edwards, along with young blues artists Cedric Burnside and Lightnin’ Malcom. (You can see our review of their Chicago concert HERE).
But on this night Todd Park Mohr and his band mates – drummer Brian Nevin, bassist Rob Squires and Jeremy Lawton on keyboards -- transformed themselves into The Big Head Blues Club. It was a tribute to the legendary Willie Dixon, starring Chicago artists who all had ties to the brilliant blues bassist, singer, songwriter and producer. The band just released a download-only version of their upcoming 2017 CD, titled Way Down Inside, featuring covers of 13 Willie Dixon songs -- with help from Mud Morganfield, Billy Branch and Ronnie Baker Brooks. Somehow, Todd and Ronnie (who have been collaborating for years) were able to coordinate their busy schedules with international blues stars Mud and Billy to do a special Fall tour together. Blues fans knew it was worth the journey to suburban St. Charles to see it. It wasn’t sold out but there were a respectable number of seats filled.
The show began as Todd introduced each featured guest with flair as the band vamped while Ronnie and Billy took their places on stage. Mud Morganfield, dressed in a bright orange suit and tie, made his entrance last. The second he sat down at the mic, they launched into the first number and Mud belted out: “I Want To Be Loved,” a Dixon song made famous by his legendary father, Muddy Waters. Larry “Mud” Morganfield’s resemblance to his parent, in both appearance and voice is remarkable. His bold performance was a fitting tribute to Mr. Dixon’s legacy as well as that of his father’s. The accompanying solos -- Billy Branch’s wailing harmonica with Ronnie and Todd’s guitars blazing away – gave the classic song an updated feel.
The elite Blues Club members all joined in on “Good Advice,” as Todd, Mud, Ronnie and Billy traded verses and harmonized together accompanied by Billy’s harp solo and Todd’s electric dobro licks that rang out like a bell.
Mud exited as Billy stood in the spotlight and got the crowd clapping for the intro to a very upbeat version of “Bring It On Home” which Todd dedicated to the Cubs! Billy sang and played his heart out with an extended solo that brought things up a few notches with his harp notes sailing the high C’s, as the crowd cheered and whistled. Billy hammed it up while the band rocked behind him. The fans rewarded him with a standing ovation.
It was Todd’s turn as he sang the breezy “The Seventh Son,” a Dixon song that Willie Mabon recorded in 1955; it was revived by Johnny Rivers in 1965. Lawton played a lively keyboard solo and Ronnie ripped off a fierce guitar solo that drew cheers from the fans.
Now Ronnie stood alone in the spotlight, wearing a vivid red suit and hat, with only the trio of Monsters behind him. A cloud of fog rolled in as the lights dimmed and Ronnie sang the mournful “My Love Will Never Die,” immortalized by living legend Otis Rush. The drummer kept a tense beat, like a grandfather clock ticking; the bass notes thumped like a broken heartbeat as the funeral-like organ swelled in the background.
Ronnie’s voice soared up to falsetto wails as he pledged his love, even in death, to a woman who mistreated him. He squeezed teardrops from his guitar strings as he moved to the front of the stage for an emotion-packed solo. The crowd stood and cheered.
Thankfully the Cubs remained ahead for the entire concert, otherwise this ominous song may have ended up being the death-knell theme for loyal Cubs fans, whose love has never died through thick and thin.
The band cleared out, making way for Todd in the solo spotlight for a triple play version of the often-covered Dixon classic “Spoonful.” Seated on a chair, playing acoustic guitar with a slide on his pinky finger, Todd started out the tune in a Delta blues style as the crowd clapped along. Part 2 was served up the way Honeyboy Edwards played it, complete with Edwards’ own set of lyrics and powerful string bending. Then, Todd showed us how Charley Patton would have played it with very old timey, rhythmic strumming.
Ronnie, Billy and Mud joined Todd for a blues story and song session, in-the- round style, with all four seated on chairs. Each one took a turn to sing a verse from “Hoochie Coochie Man” and tell a personal tale about Willie Dixon and other blues legends.
Ronnie played dobro and recalled being on tour with his Dad and Dixon as a youth. Father Lonnie Brooks let Dixon know that his son aspired to sing the blues and could use some advice. Willie Dixon told young Ronnie to sing “from the heart” so it will go straight “to the heart” of the listener. Ronnie proceeded to do just that for us and we cheered each familiar line beginning with: “Gypsy woman told my mother, ‘fore I was born…”
Todd told a story about being on the road with Hubert Sumlin, who played guitar for Howlin’ Wolf, an artist that had hit records with many a Willie Dixon song. Hubert and Todd planned to record together but the legendary guitarist died on December 4, 2011 at age 80 before they got the chance. Todd wrote a song for Hubert the day he died and he was asked to perform it at Sumlin’s funeral and gravesite services. “It was the greatest honor of my life,” Todd declared and then he belted out: “I gotta black cat bone, and a mojo too…”
Billy Branch’s story was next. “August 30, 1969 was the greatest blues fest in history,” he began. “Muddy Waters, Koko Taylor, Buddy Guy, Junior Wells, Big Mama Thornton, Jimmy Reed and about 30 more legends performed. It was produced by Willie Dixon and it was the first day I ever heard the blues.” Young Mr. Branch immediately set about learning to play blues harp and a few years later was asked to join Willie Dixon’s band. Billy sang a few original autobiographical verses he wrote for “Hoochie Coochie Man,” that got us laughing.
Not to be outdone, Mud reminisced about sitting on Muddy Waters’ front porch with Willie Dixon at age 12, when a giant limo pulled up, shocking the both of them. He described a little skinny man who jumped out, speaking in a strange accent. “Can you guess who it was?” he asked us. “Mick Jagger.” Mud then belted out the final lyrics, that could have been written about him: “On the seventh hour, on the seventh day, on the seventh month, the seventh doctor say: I was born for good luck…”
This treatment of “Hoochie Coochie Man” was a real highlight of the show so far, and we were only coming up on song Number 8. “Midnight Lover,” a realistic tale of infidelity, was performed with both humor and pathos by Mud Morganfield with appropriate anguished solos by Ronnie on guitar and Lawton on keyboards. A standing ovation was given.
A Bo Diddley beat got our hips shaking and kicked off Todd’s version of “Pretty Thing” that featured an animated guitar duet with Ronnie and Todd that earned huge applause and cheers.
Todd brought out the show’s secret weapon, singer Erica Brown, while declaring: “She’s the one that’s gonna get the Grand Slam going.” Todd sang the Muddy standard about lusting after the ladies, “Same Thing,” as Erica slinked about the stage. Her exotic moves were so mesmerizing, it was like watching a rocket getting ready to launch. Erica prepared for countdown by securing all loose items and then removing her glasses and glittery bracelet. Her verse came up and it was like “Houston we have lift off.” Erica’s earth-shaking voice virtually exploded as she stomped her feet, shook her body, and waved her arms and hands with each word. She blew the roof off the Arcada in one fell swoop! Ronnie and Billy joined in with some guitar slashing and harp blasts to finish the song to a rousing standing ovation!
Ronnie capitalized on the momentum, asking the crowd to cheer on the Cubs. “When we win, and I say WHEN, not IF. So WHEN we win you will never forget where you were at watching the game.”
Ronnie (RBB) than burst into song: “oooh wee baby, when you walk, you shake just like a willow tree,” as Todd wailed away on his B&W electric guitar for “Let Me Love You Baby,” a Dixon song made famous by Buddy Guy. Ronnie got the crowd on its feet clapping while he, Todd and Billy Branch all traded chops, hamming it up by the front of the stage for photo opps. Of course, RBB played guitar with his teeth and tongue!
Howlin’ Wolf’s “Hidden Charms,” was served up by Todd and his blues Monsters, featuring a blazing guitar solo by the bandleader.
RBB returned to play rhythm guitar while Todd sang “Sittin’ And Cryin’ The Blues” with sorrow in his voice and tortured emotion in his guitar solo. The audience went wild with cheers and applause as David Ross hit a solo home run for the Cubs, but Todd took the interruption well. The crowd gave him a standing ovation in return.
The room went silent as the sound of a harmonica was heard echoing from the wings. It became louder and Billy walked on stage while blowing his harp. He hit us with a total stomp down display of styles, technique and note scaling and then toned it down to begin Dixon’s anti-war protest song “It Don’t Make Sense If You Can’t Make Peace.”
Billy and the band put their own haunting, jazzy spin on the arrangement as Billy declared: “imagine a world where, instead of wars, we just played baseball games.” RBB added a striking guitar accent -- a ringing note he sustained with the whammy bar. Branch’s harmonica provided emotional backdrop and when he sang, he used his body language to deliver the message like a preacher in the pulpit. RBB, Erica Brown and Todd sang backup. The song ended with RBB and Erica flashing the peace sign and the audience flashed it back.
Then it was time to boogie down for a rockin’ version of “Crazy Mixed Up World,” featuring Todd on vocals and Billy jammin’ on harp like a man possessed.
For the 16th song and final number, Mud came back on stage to hit us with a dramatic version of “Whole Lotta Love/ You Need Love” complete with starts, stops and tempo changes. Mud’s hands were flying about as he sang and Billy moved about the stage blowing harp. Mud then declared that he bet Billy $100 backstage that he couldn’t moonwalk like Michael Jackson. Branch accepted the challenge, prowled about the stage and moonwalked backwards to cheers. Not to be outdone, Mud jumped up, raised his bright orange blazer and did a hip-thrusting hoochie dance before walking off stage, laughing his head off while the band finished the song Led Zeppelin style.
The crowd shouted and stomped for more and soon they returned for “Little Red Rooster.” Billy belted it out, channeling a bit of Howlin’ Wolf’s growling vocals. Mudd and Erica added some back up howls. Billy approached Mud and started talking in a nonsensical manner (perhaps a Jerry Lewis character?), trying to crack him up. Mud was amused, and promptly took over; he and the band kicked off a stompin’ version of “Someday Baby” that got everyone up and dancing. Mud pointed to the drummer, who gave us a killer solo as we cheered him on.
Mud brought on Erica, who danced all over the stage, as Mud urged her, “take your time, baby.” When she was ready, Erica burst into “Wang Dang Doodle”; it was like an atomic explosion hit us! By now, everyone was up on their collective feet as she led us into a call and response for “all night long.” The Cubs were still ahead and it was the 8th inning. Everyone was ecstatic as the band took its final bows and exited at 9:35 p.m. The 20 song set included all 13 of the songs from the new Big Head Blues Club CD, Way Down Inside.
Erica popped back on stage and commanded, “Don’t turn off the mic yet!” We knew we were in for a treat. Erica proudly belted out a powerful, pitch perfect, a’ capella rendition of the “Star Spangled Banner.” A lady appeared on stage waving a giant American flag, as we stood with hands on hearts. Hearts that were filled with pride and joy in the blues and the Cubs. As Ronnie had predicted, it was a night we would always remember!
Linda Cain is the managing editor and founder of Chicago Blues Guide.