Your Complete Guide to the Chicago Blues Scene
BIG HEAD BLUES CLUB
With Big Head Todd & The Monsters, Cedric Burnside & Lightnin’ Malcom, David “Honeyboy” Edwards, Hubert Sumlin
February 11, 2011
Blues At The Crossroads: Robert Johnson Centennial Concert
Orchestra Hall, Symphony Center
by Geoff Trubow
photos: Jennifer Wheeler
photos: Jennifer Wheeler
Robert Johnson recorded only 29 songs between 1936 and 1937 before his unfortunate and mysterious death at age 27, (the first of the infamous “27” musicians club) yet his influence and music have not only survived, but flourished well into the present day. This is due to the strength and individuality of his songwriting coupled with the exceptionality of his guitar playing. As Rolling Stones guitarist Keith Richards stated in the liner notes of Johnson’s 1990 box set, the first time he heard him, “I was hearing two guitars, and it took me a long time to realize he was actually doing it all by himself.”
The vague history of his life adds to Robert Johnson’s mystique. This ranges from the well-known rumor that he made a bargain with Old Nick at the crossroads, selling his soul in exchange for his acute prowess on the guitar, to the uncertainty surrounding the cause of his death. The most widely accepted version is that he was poisoned by a woman’s angry husband. His legacy is also strengthened by artists from Eric Clapton to the Red Hot Chili Peppers covering his work, which is the most important aspect of all -- the enduring quality of his music.
Now, Big Head Todd and the Monsters can add their name to the list, as they not only hosted the show at Symphony Center, but their album, 100 Years of Robert Johnson under the moniker, Big Head Blues Club, will be released March 1. The 10-song disc features the band covering Johnson’s music with special guests including: B.B. King, David “Honeyboy” Edwards, Hubert Sumlin, Charlie Musselwhite and Ruthie Foster.
Big Head Todd and the Monsters -- Todd Park Mohr on guitar and vocals, Rob Squires on bass and Brian Nevin on drums -- formed in the mid-eighties in Colorado and came to prominence in the nineties with such albums as Sister Sweetly and Beautiful World. They were joined by guitarist/keyboardist, Jeremy Lawton in 2004. The band has maintained steady success over the years with strong albums and an incessant touring schedule that has earned them a deeply loyal fan base. However, the February 11th stop on the 21-date tour in Chicago was not about the Monsters; it was strictly in tribute and recognition of one of the most important and influential musicians that this country has ever produced.
The majestic Orchestra Hall in Symphony Center was most fitting to celebrate a musician of Johnson’s stature. Mohr, who is a part-time Northfield, IL resident, took the stage alone beginning with “Stones In My Passway” and continuing with “Love In Vain,” which he also performs solo on the new record. His guitar playing was stirring as always, but his vocal range, especially on “Love In Vain,” was very moving as he evoked Johnson’s own high pitch. He was joined by his fellow Monsters along with Cedric Burnside on drums, grandson of R.L. Burnside, and Lightnin’ Malcolm on guitar for “Kindhearted Woman Blues”.
Burnside and Malcolm are a duo that formed in 2006 and they are featured prominently on the 100 Years of Robert Johnson album. Mohr only sang on this one, but he returned to the guitar for “When You Got A Good Friend,” trading verses with Malcolm. As the musicians went into “Rambling On My Mind,” Mohr again just handled the vocals with Malcolm rocking up the song on slide guitar and Burnside playing guitar himself. Burnside returned to the drum kit as Malcolm continued with some exceptional slide playing on a very brisk version of “If I Had Possession Over Judgment Day”.
Malcolm occupied the stage by himself for a version of “Walking Blues” as well as discussing one of the situations that perpetuated the Johnson myth of the guitarist basically disappearing for six months and when he returned to the public, his adeptness on the guitar was absolutely astounding. A highlight of the show occurred when Malcolm was joined by David “Honeyboy” Edwards. Aged 95, Edwards, who lives on the South Side, not only knew and played with Robert Johnson, he saw him the day before he died. “Tuesday I went over to where he lived,” Edwards told Chicago Magazine, “and he was crawling around, his stomach all upset, people giving him soda water and different stuff to try and make him heave that stuff up. He died on Wednesday, about ten o’clock in the morning.” Edwards’ account lends credibility to the theory that Johnson was indeed poisoned. Along with Malcolm and Michael Frank, (Edwards’ manager and President of Earwig Music) on harp, he sang and played guitar on “Sweet Home Chicago”. Edwards also performed this on the 100 Years album accompanied by only Charlie Musslewhite on harp.
The trio was later joined by Hubert Sumlin for Howlin’ Wolf’s “Goin’ Down Slow,” appropriate as Sumlin was the Wolf’s guitarist for 25 years. Approaching 80 years old and requiring an oxygen tank, Sumlin still played brilliantly and continued to do so when Big Head Todd & The Monsters and Cedric Burnside returned to the stage for another of the Wolf’s tunes, “Smokestack Lightnin’.” Edwards had left the stage by this time to a standing ovation from the audience. Sumlin, who remained seated, was still able to keep rolling with the Wolf, as he not only sang lead on “Sittin’ On Top Of The World,” but provided some of the most elaborate licks of the evening, which he continued on Willie Dixon’s “Wang Dang Doodle”. Mohr sang lead on the quickly paced version of the song as he did for the Wolf’s “Killing Floor” on which Sumlin contributed yet another inspired solo and, like Edwards, was given a standing ovation as he made his move offstage while the band closed out the tune.
The band revisited Johnson’s songs with a mellow rendition of “Last Fair Deal Gone Down” which was increased in tempo through Malcolm’s solos weaving in and out with Lawton’s keyboards. They closed with “Cross Road Blues” with Mohr again singing lead and playing lead guitar.
While the show could have satisfactorily ended on that note, the Monsters returned with Burnside and Malcolm for a very heavy version of “Come On In My Kitchen.” The jamming was unbreakable, notably the unison of Nevin and Burnside on drums, punched up by Squires’ bass. This was further enhanced by the continued capability of Malcolm’s guitar and Lawson’s keyboard solos, with Mohr himself channeling his musicianship into the heart of Mississippi. The show ended with the entire audience on their feet as Edwards and Sumlin returned to the stage for a straight out jam of “I Believe I’ll Dust My Broom”. Sumlin never once let up on his guitar, as did Mohr vocally, while the entire group reprised “Sweet Home Chicago”.
The beauty of this two-hour, non-stop show was that the true front person of the evening was the man who was being celebrated. As a live band, Big Head Todd & the Monsters are one of the tightest, yet free flowing groups that, like all great live bands, play strictly for their audience and for the sake of playing. Onstage, each generation complemented one another musically and the opportunity to see “Honeyboy” Edwards and Hubert Sumlin play, together no less, was special in itself. The brilliance of Robert Johnson is unquestionable and as Mohr told the Chicago Sun-Times, “Anything you can do to get people closer to the blues is a public service.”