Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Big Head Blues Club: "100 Years Of Robert Johnson" (2011) CD

One hundred years after his birth, this CD is a tribute to the genius of Robert Johnson, and features B.B. King, Ruthie Foster and Charlie Musselwhite.

Big Head Blues Club is actually Big Head Todd And The Monsters, with several very special guest musicians. The album, as the title suggests, is a tribute to Robert Johnson, who was born on May 8, 1911.

Robert Johnson has had a tremendous influence on the course of popular music - not just blues, but rock and folk as well. Anyone who knows anything about music has heard of him, which is amazing considering he actually recorded only twenty-nine songs, and all of them were in 1936 and 1937.

He died at that weird and notable age of 27 (paving the way for Brian Jones, Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, Jim Morrison, Ron "Pigpen" McKernan, and Kurt Cobain - who all died at that same age). His death as well as his life is the stuff of legend.

The story is that he had made a deal with the devil, promising his soul in order to become a master musician. And then in 1938, he was playing at a country dance in Mississippi. As the story goes, Johnson was flirting with a married woman (in some accounts, she was the wife of the owner of the venue), and her husband poisoned him, putting strychnine in his open bottle of whiskey.

This CD showcases ten of Robert Johnson's best songs, and features some amazing guest musicians, including B.B. King, Ruthie Foster and Charlie Musselwhite.

"Come On In My Kitchen"

The album opens with "Come On In My Kitchen," a mid-tempo blues song, done with a rock groove. This is a song from Robert Johnson's early recording sessions in San Antonio. This rendition by Big Head Blues Club has a cool rhythm provided by Rob Squires on bass and Brian Nevin on drums. There is also some nice work by Jeremy Lawton on the B3 organ. But the most interesting element on "Come In My Kitchen" is Charlie Musselwhite on harmonica.

Charlie Musselwhite has played with John Lee Hooker, Tom Waits and Bonnie Raitt. He's also released many albums of his own.

"Ramblin' On My Mind"

Nearly a minute into "Ramblin' On My Mind," there is a great moment where most of the instruments are silent, leaving the vocals alone over a growing roll on the snare. It's a great raw moment, and it leads to the other instruments coming in again, with full bluesy force.

The song's lyrics are one of those perennial blues subjects: leaving. Todd sings, "I'm going down to the station/Catch the first train I see." And of course it has that wonderful roughness in lines like, "I got mean things/I got mean things on my mind." The song slows down at the very end, and the electric guitar has the final say, holding out just a moment longer than the other instruments.

Lightnin' Malcolm plays electric slide guitar on this track.

"When You Gotta Good Friend"

"When You Gotta Good Friend" has a simple blues rhythm, with some wonderful and playful guitar over it. Ruthie Foster shares the vocals with Todd Park Mohr. It's interesting to hear a female voice singing "Give her all your spare time/Love and treat her right." It adds another dimension to the lyric - some more power.

Todd sings, "I mistreated my baby and I can't see no reason why." So is Ruthie the mistreated woman, or is she a friend offering advice? Is she instructing him on how she herself should be treated, or how he should treat another woman? It works either way.

"When You Gotta Good Friend" features Hubert Sumlin on guitar. Sumlin played guitar in Howlin' Wolf's band. He was inducted into the Blues Foundation Hall Of Fame in 1988.

"Crossroads Blues"

One of the most recognizable voices in blues, B.B. King, is featured on "Crossroad Blues." He plays guitar and performs vocals as well, taking a second lead vocal part. It's wonderful hearing him sing, "I believe I'm sinking down." B.B. King can really sell the blues. This song also features nice work on drums by Brian Nevin.

"Preachin' Blues"

"Preachin' Blues" is a quicker paced song with an intriguing rhythm, provided not only by the drums and bass but by the guitar as well. It's a very different type of blues song, with a sort of funky edge. It's one of the album's best tracks, and certainly the most interesting one. Lightin' Malcolm plays acoustic guitar on this one.

"Kind Hearted Woman"
"Kind Hearted Woman" has more of an acoustic, older feel - it has that raw power of traditional blues. Jeremy Lawton plays piano on this one, rather than organ, adding to the song's old-timey tone and appeal. Ruthie Foster contributes a second lead vocal, providing an interesting perspective.

She sings, "I love my baby, but my baby don't love me/You know I love that man/Can't stand to leave him be." It becomes a duet, a love song, though of course a troubled love song. Todd sings, "I'm worried about how you treat me, babe." Ruthie sings, "My life don't feel the same/You know you break my heart when you call me so-and-so's name." This is possibly the best track on the album.

"If I Had Possession Over Judgement Day"

"If I Had Possession Over Judgement Day" is a song that is full of surprises. It starts off simply enough, with a great groove on guitar. But then the guitar takes some jagged turns, like a razor against your organs - only somehow that makes you feel better. David "Honeyboy" Edwards provides some excellent blues vocals on this track, and Todd really stretches out vocally too. And check out those wild fills on drums, provided by Cedric Burnside. This is an incredible rendition of the song.

David "Honeyboy: Edwards received a Lifetime Achievement Grammy Award on January 31, 2010. He is also in the Blues Hall Of Fame.

"Last Fair Deal Gone Down"

"Last Fair Deal Gone Down" begins with a cool, mellow groove. Then the vocals seems to slide easily in, Todd singing, "It's the last fair deal gone down." About four minutes in, the tone changes - the song picks up in pace, and takes on more of a rock feel and rhythm. Charlie Musselwhite's harmonica becomes more forceful, lively. And then the song is over - suddenly - too soon.

This song has been covered over the years by Eric Clapton, Peter Green and Beck. And other bands, while not doing direct covers, have done variations on this theme.

"All My Love's In Vain"

The Rolling Stones did a great cover of this tune, under the shortened title "Love In Vain." It's included on one of their best records, Let It Bleed, when they were straying into country rock territory, as well as doing the blues. Robert Johnson himself had a definite interest in country music.

Todd Park Mohr does this song solo, and does a phenomenal job on it. He sings, "I followed her to the station with a suitcase in my hand/Well, it's hard to tell, hard to tell when all your love's in vain/All my love's in vain." This track is another of this CD's highlights.

"Sweet Home Chicago"

The album concludes with a great version of "Sweet Home Chicago," a song that's been covered by Buddy Guy, Eric Clapton, Fleetwood Mac and The Blues Brothers. There have been some full-band rock versions of this song, like that done by Foghat. The version on 100 Years Of Robert Johnson is more raw, feeling more immediate.

Appearing on this version is Dave "Honeyboy" Edwards on guitar and vocals, and Charlie Musselwhite on harmonica. None of the members of Big Head Todd And The Monsters are on this track.

CD Track List
  1. Come On In My Kitchen
  2. Ramblin' On My Mind
  3. When You Gotta Good Friend
  4. Crossroads Blues
  5. Preachin' Blues
  6. Kind Hearted Woman
  7. If I Had Possession Over Judgement Day
  8. Last Fair Deal Gone Down
  9. All My Love's In Vain
  10. Sweet Home Chicago

Big Head Blues Club is Todd Park Mohr on guitar and vocals, Rob Squires on bass, Brian Nevil on drums and Jeremy Lawton on keyboards. Joining them is Cedric Burnside on acoustic guitar and drums, Lightin' Malcolm on acoustic guitar and electric guitar, Charlie Musselwhite on harmonica, Hubert Sumlin on guitar, Ruthie Foster on vocals, B.B King on guitar and vocals, and David "Honeyboy" Edwards on vocals and guitar.

This CD is scheduled to be released March 1, 2011. A tour is scheduled to coincide with the album's release. Called Blues At The Crossroads: The Robert Johnson Centennial Concerts, these performances will feature Big Head Todd And The Monsters, as well as special guests David "Honeyboy" Edwards, Hubert Sumlin, Cedric Burnside and Lightnin' Malcolm. Concert dates are scheduled from January 28th through March 8th, 2011.

The blues, of course, are not new to Big Head Todd And The Monsters. They did a version of John Lee Hooker's "Boom Boom" on their 1997 release, Beautiful World. They also did a cover of "Smokestack Lightning" on their newest release, Rocksteady (2010). And a lot of their original material has something of a bluesy feel to it.

(Note: This article was originally posted on January 18, 2011.)

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