Big Head Todd celebrates Robert Johnson at the century mark
BIG HEAD BLUES CLUB 100 Years of Robert Johnson (Ryko/Big Records)
If Robert Johnson had been around for his 80th birthday, he could have basked in the success of The Complete Recordings of Robert Johnson, the double-disc box set collecting nearly every master version and alternate take he recorded during those now-celebrated 1937 and 1937 sessions.
By 1990, when the Grammy-winning, platinum-selling collection was released, Johnson had fallen into obscurity once again. Now here he was again, those crudely recorded solo voice and guitar performances dusted off for the CD age – and the kind of adulation rivaling Jimi Hendrix.
Two decades later, musicians are still celebrating Johnson and finding new ways to express his songs. Witness Eric Clapton’s 2004 release Me and Mr. Johnson and this new release by Big Head Todd and the Monsters.
To celebrate Johnson’s 100th birthday, the Colorado rock band (who headline a show at Red Rocks this summer on June 11) revisited 10 of the early bluesman’s songs. And whether intended or not, the song list overlaps but does not duplicate Clapton’s tribute; unique to this set are performances of “Rambin’ on My Mind,” “Cross Road Blues,” “Preachin’ Blues” and “Sweet Home Chicago.”
The moniker “Big Head Blues Club” alludes to the expanded lineup. Guitarist and vocalist Todd Park Mohr, bassist Rob Squires, drummer Brian Nevin and keyboardist Jeremy Lawton enlisted blues icons B.B. King, Hubert Sumlin, Honeyboy Edwards and Charlie Musselwhite and younger upstarts Ruthie Foster, Cedric Burnside and Lightnin’ Malcolm.
Mohr performs “All My Love in Vain” solo, just how Johnson recorded it — voice and acoustic guitar. From their the collective takes more liberties: the funky organ grooves on “Come On In My Kitchen,” (featuring Musselwhite); the John Lee Hooker-vibe of “When You Gotta Good Friend” (featuring Foster and Sumlin); and the uptown version of “Cross Road Blues,” which bears more than a passing resemblance to “The Thrill is Gone” (featuring, of course, B.B. King.)
Although the Monsters do an exemplary job – the blues has always been at the heart of their sound – you have to give them special credit for tapping elder statesmen like 95-year-old Honey Boy Edwards to join the party. Edwards moans and wails with the band on “If I Had Possession Over Judgment Day” and closes the disc on a rough-edged duet with Charlie Musselwhite.
THE JAYHAWKS – Tomorrow the Green Grass: Legacy Edition and Hollywood Town Hall (American/Legacy)
That Tomorrow the Green Grass is getting the double-disc “deluxe” reissue treatment is more a testament to its beloved status in music circles than its sales record over the years.
By 1995, Jayhawks founders and principal songwriters Gary Louris and Mark Olson had already been toiling for several years perfecting their harmony-rich country rock when they crafted the album that should have been the Minnesota band’s commercial breakthrough. The critical kudos alone were not enough for Olson, who left the band when it became clear the Jayhawks weren’t about to graduate to headline status anytime soon.
Why the bittersweet ballad “Blue” — the pinnacle of the Louris/Olson songwriting and vocal harmony blend — never caught on with radio remains a mystery. The album was brimming with gems: the gently rocking “Miss Williams’ Guitar” (Olson’s tribute to his girlfriend and future wife, singer-songwriter Victoria Williams ); the clever reinvention of the Grand Funk ’70s hit “Bad Time.”
The original 13-song album is boosted by five unreleased outtakes and B-sides on disc one. The second disc features 18 previously released demos, composed mainly of songs the duo had been developing at the time, a hint at greatness that would go unrealized but worthy of unearthing in their own right.
More than 15 years later, Olson and Louris are performing again and working on a new Jayhawks album after releasing Ready for the Flood as a duo in 2009. For now Jayhawks fans can rediscover the peak of their partnership.
Also reissued and expanded: Hollywood Town Hall, the band’s 1993 major label debut, a disc nearly as strong as Grass, featuring the near-hit “Waiting for the Sun” (featuring Heartbreakers keyboardist Benmont Tench); the honky-tonk inspired “Two Angels” and five bonus tracks.