2011 marks what would be the 100th birthday of legendary blues guitarist Robert Johnson, arguably the most influential blues player of the past century. He only recorded 29 songs during his all too brief 27 years on the planet, but his output would influence everyone from Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf, Willie Dixon and B.B. King to Eric Clapton, Jimmy Page, Keith Richards and so many more.
You’d think that one of those legends might have been the one to hit the road for a tour honoring Johnson’s centennial, but no, it’s Big Head Todd and the Monsters who have seized the moment. The band called in a slew of special guests like guitarist Hubert Sumlin (who is touring with the band as well) to cut a tribute album 100 Years of Robert Johnson (due March 1), and is now on the road to celebrate with their “Blues at the Crossroads” tour. Billed as the Big Head Blues Club, the Colorado quartet is out to deliver an old school blues show that harkens to a more vintage era.
The Paramount Theater in the heart of downtown Austin serves as ground zero for the blues on this Friday night. The show has an early 8 pm start time and band leader Todd Mohr is on stage shortly thereafter to open the proceedings with an acapella rendition of “John the Revelator”. He then picks up a silver dobro-style guitar for Johnson’s “Me and the Devil”, conjuring a classic old-school vibe. “Stones in My Passway” features more of the same. Mohr follows with “Dry Spell Blues” from Son House, another legendary bluesman and contemporary of Johnson’s. It’s a timely tune here in this foul economic era that is 2011. Mohr’s band is generally associated with neo-hippie jam rock, but he seems to have the soul of a Delta bluesman.
Slide guitar ace Lightnin’ Malcolm is the first special guest to appear, lending his skills to the down home blues of “Kind Hearted Woman”. Then the rest of the band comes on, including guest second drummer Cedric Burnside, grandson of the legendary R.L. Burnside. The band fires up “When You Got a Good Friend”, starting off with a slow loping groove before Burnside cranks it up a notch with his ace drum work. Then it’s Burnside and Malcolm as a musical duo with Mohr on vocals for another bluesy jam, with Malcolm’s hot slide work lighting up the stage.
The full band comes back and Mohr shows his own lead guitar skills on the next tune, laying down some melty licks on a custom Tele, followed by a deep organ solo from bandmate Jeremy Lawton. Mohr delivers one of the all-time classic blues lines when he sings “Squeeze my lemon until the juice runs down my leg,” which would seem to make this a version of Johnson’s “Traveling Riverside Blues” (which Led Zeppelin appropriated in their “Lemon Song”). Bassist Rob Squires and drummer Brian Nevin are deep in the pocket here, and watching Nevin and Burnside hit the polyrhythmic percussion all night is a treat.
Soon after, Burnside is left on his own for a killer drum solo that rocks the house with sharp bluesy beats and puts the concept of the clichéd overblown heavy metal drum solo to shame. Then it’s Malcolm’s solo, sitting down for “one the old fashioned way” on a tune he says he learned from Son House. It’s the classic “Walkin Blues”, a clear fan favorite. The full band returns again for “Rambling on My Mind”, which builds slowly but surely into one of the fattest grooves of the night. It features some great slide licks from Malcolm, as well as some bonus guitar work from the multi-talented Burnside.
The level of blues authenticity is already deep, but grows deeper still when 79-year-old Hubert Sumlin joins the group. Blues class is in session now, as Sumlin takes a seat at the front of the stage with his Stratocaster and leads the band into a crackling “Smokestack Lighting”. This is followed by a slow-burning rendition of “Sitting on Top of the World” with Sumlin on vocals. It goes to show how malleable the blues are. The Grateful Dead and other jambands have been known to play the song as an up-tempo barnburner, but here it’s a vintage version all the way. Sumlin and the band kick it back into high gear for “Wang Dang Doodle”, as the classic cuts just keep coming. Then it’s a big bluesy groove on Howlin’ Wolf’s “Killing Floor”, whom Sumlin played with and whom Led Zeppelin ripped off for “I’m Gonna Quit You Baby”.
Sumlin exits to a huge ovation after “Killing Floor”, but it’s been quite a sequence, with some of the greatest songs in blues history getting a superb freshening up. “Last Fair Deal Gone Down” then finds the Big Head Blues Club entering an ambient blues territory, with some great psychedelic organ work from Lawton and supremely soulful vocals from Mohr. It starts at a slow simmer, but picks up until it ends with a charged jam. The band then closes out the set with the seminal “Crossroads Blues”. It’s not performed in the perhaps more familiar barnburner version of Clapton and Cream, but in the classic Delta blues style, featuring more psychedelic organ work and smoking licks from Mohr.
Sumlin returns for the encore as the Blues Club drops “Come On in My Kitchen”, one more Johnson classic that appropriately heats up from frying pan level to fire. The crowd has been seated for most of the night, but many in the front and sides are standing now as the band runs through one more sizzling blues jam.
It can be a constant challenge for veteran bands to find fresh creative direction. Sometimes revisiting the influences of the past can be a way to rekindle one’s own inspiration and the Robert Johnson material seems to be firing up this crew. The Club is also doing a great service by introducing some people to Lightnin’ Malcolm and Cedric Burnside, who have dazzled throughout the night and figure to have a lot of new fans after this tour. It will be very interesting to see where Big Head Todd and the Monsters go next.