Wednesday, June 01, 2011

Big Head Todd's Well Considered Robert Johnson tribute

Big Head Blues Club is an offshoot of Big Head Todd and The Monsters created by Todd Park Mohr, to help celebrate the Robert Johnson Birthday centenary, 100 Years of Robert Johnson (Ryko/ Big Records). Guitarist and vocalist, Mohr and his band mates, bassist Rob Squires, drummer Brian Nevin and keyboardist Jeremy Lawton are joined by B.B. King, Charlie Musselwhite, Ruthie Foster, Cedric Burnside and Lightnin’ Malcolm for renditions of ten of Johnson’s songs. Robert Johnson was a brilliant performer who died way too young so he has become a mythical figure which has led some to make the incredulous assertion that Robert Johnson was most influential blues artist of all time. This unsupported assertion has more to do with myth than reality or blues history. Call Robert Johnson the greatest blues artist of all time. That opinion can be debated but can't be faulted. But calling him the most influential exposes one’s ignorance of the music’s history (and the impact of others) and ignores the fact that if there was no Robert Johnson, blues as we know it would probably have evolved in pretty much the manner it sounds like today.

I have no idea what is included in the physical CD as I received a download promotional copy, but the music on this is not without its pleasures. For one thing, the renditions of Johnson’s songs are not overly reverential as say the tribute albums by Rory Block or Eric Clapton. As a vocalist Mohr may lack the depth of feeling that a Johnny Shines, Elmore James or Big Joe Williams brought to their interpretations of Johnson’s music, but does bring an amiable, gravelly approach and sings with plenty of heart.

The disc opens with
Come On In My Kitchen features a funk groove that is more Hill Country flavored than Johnson’s original with a harp break from Charlie Musselwhite. Rambling on My Mind, follows with an emphatic groove that is slowed down from the original. Cedric Burnside is on acoustic guitar and Lightning Malcolm on slide guitar on an accompaniment not wedded to the broom-dusting riff employed on many versions of this. It is followed by a frenzied Preachin’ Blues, on which Burnside is on drums and Malcolm adding the acoustic slide. The frenzied character of the performance does a credible job of evoking Johnson’s original which struck me as one of Johnson’s most fervent recordings.

Crossroads Blues, with B.B. King, has an imaginative arrangement owing little to Johnson or Elmore James and Mohr credibly shares the vocal with King as Johnny Lawton’s funky organ helps set the mood. When You Got a Good Friend is another tine with more of a hill country fill that traditional delta-styled blues of Johnson with Foster adding backing vocals and Sumlin some guitar embellishments along with Lightnin’ Malcolm. Kind Hearted Woman is a nice piano-guitar duet between Malcolm on acoustic guitar and pianist Lawton as Foster and Mohr trade lines in the shared vocal. One jarring note is Mohr singing “Mr. Johnson” when he could have personalized it as to Big Todd. Honeyboy Edwards may be the last living link to Robert Johnson, but of those associated with Johnson, he is musically the least able and his weak vocal at the beginning of If I Had Possession Over Judgment Day, is salvaged by Mohr’s strong singing and the driving, rhythmic backing of Cedric Burnside and Lightnin’ Malcolm. Musselwhite contributes moody harmonica behind a smoldering, smokey treatment of Last Fair Deal Gone Down.

After Mohr’s capable solo acoustic rendition of
All My Love’s In Vain, the album concludes with a somewhat inept Sweet Home Chicago, by Honeyboy Edwards which does have some nice harmonica by Musselwhite on it to make this track listenable. It perhaps ends this disc on a bum note, which is unfortunate as with this exception on this. 100 Years of Robert Johnson may not be an essential recording, but it certainly is an entertaining release that blues traditionalists like myself and those with a more casual interest in blues, should be able to enjoy.

This review originally appeared in the
May 1 - June 15, 2011 Jazz & Blues Report (Issue 335). A download of this was provided by a publicist for the release.

No comments: