Big Head Blues Club 100 Years of Robert Johnson (Big Records)
Though Robert Johnson only recorded 29 songs in his career before dying in 1938 of strychnine poisoning (reportedly after consuming at least one tainted bottle of whiskey handed to him during a concert near Greenwood, Miss.), his work had a major influence on not only modern blues artists, but rock and roll, folk and soul musicians as well.
Eric Clapton states Johnson was an important influence on his musical upbringing, and calls Johnson, “The most important blues singer that ever lived.” Clapton paid tribute to Johnson with an album of covers, Me and Mr. Johnson, devoted to the man.
And that’s exactly what 100 Years of Robert Johnson is, a tribute celebrating the 100 year anniversary of Johnson’s May 8, 1911 birth.
Led by Big Head Todd and the Monsters (Todd Park Mohr on guitar and vocals, Rob Squires on bass, drummer Brian Nevil and keyboardist Jeremy Lawton), the Big Head Blues Club features a bevy of guest stars, including guitarists B.B King, Hubert Sumlin, David “Honeyboy” Edwards, Lightnin’ Malcolm and Cedric Burnside (who also does time on drums), harmonica wiz Charlie Musselwhite and vocalist Ruthie Foster.
The sessions yielding these 10 tracks (complete list below) reveal a loose and easy groove. The collaborations aren’t perfect, but here it’s the vibe that counts and 100 Years of Robert Johnson showcases of a fun get together amongst blues lovers who knowingly owe much to the man who helped define the blues.
Without picking the album apart track by track, certain aspects do stand out. B.B. King’s guitar on “Crossroads” has the urgency and rich textural depth of his late-’60s work and, aided by Lawton’s rich organ sound prevalent of that time period, this classic feels altogether fresh and new.
On the powerful rendition “Ramblin on My Mind,” the band is in full swing with Lightnin’ Malcolm laying down stinging slide guitar. The fact that this is performed on electric guitar (of course, Johnson did everything acoustically), only adds to the fiery tension. Malcolm also shows his skill and diversity later, playing acoustic guitar on “Preachin’ Blues.”
Sumlin, Howlin’ Wolf’s guitarist for many years, tears into “When You Gotta Good Friend” while Edwards, recipient of a Lifetime Achievement Grammy Award, lays down monstrous leads on a couple tracks.
Musselwhite appears on several tracks and his distinctive harmonica playing stretches and enhances these compositions, notably his forceful playing on the opener: “Come On In My Kitchen.”
Similarly, Foster’s guttural growl and deeply emotive voice is a powerful force. It is interesting to hear a woman covering Johnson, but with such vigor and determination, here she’s a woman to be reckoned with, and the songs swell under her spell.
Of course, Colorado’s Big Head Todd and the Monsters are the backbone of this endeavor, keeping the songs on track so the guests can cut loose. Mohr does much of the singing, channeling his inner blues with growls and howls that would make Johnson proud. Plus, the whole band is clearly in step.
And even though all of these tracks have been covered extensively from the likes of Clapton, Fleetwood Mac, Rolling Stones and a myriad of blues artists known and unknown, it still works here. This is, after all, the music of Robert Johnson, and who can get enough of that? —Glenn BurnSilver
Here’s the complete track listing:
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 Judgment Day
8. Last Fair Deal Gone Down
9. All My Love’s In Vain
10. Sweet Home Chicago