A lazy, soul-funk version of “Come On In My Kitchen” kicks off 100 Years of Robert Johnson, the new album by the Big Head Blues Club, an offshoot of the Colorado-based band Big Head Todd and the Monsters that adds, oh, just a few musicians you may have heard of: B.B. King, Ruthie Foster, Cedric Burnside, Honeyboy Edwards, Charlie Musselwhite, Lightnin’ Malcolm and Hubert Sumlin, Howlin’ Wolf’s former guitarist who passed away in December.
But back to the song: a Hammond B-3 circles around Johnson’s melody a couple of times. Todd Park Mohr, the singer and guitarist, vocalizes wordlessly in a scratchy tenor, eventually arriving at Johnson’s first verse (“The woman I know took my best friend / some joker got lucky, stole her back again”). He sings like he’s breathing in, not out, swallowing the words as they come out of his mouth. After a few shards of a distorted guitar break, the second verse starts with more Mohr mannerisms; he exaggerates and inflects each vowel casually, without hamming it up. So, this is the blues, you’d be tempted to think. Colorado-style.
Johnson’s music, ever since it was reissued on LP in the early ’60s, has served as a sort of cultural touchstone and proving ground for invading Brits (Eric Clapton, the Rolling Stones, Led Zeppelin, Cream), state-side psychedelic rockers (the Grateful Dead, Canned Heat) and countless musicians, including many from non-blues walks of life (the Red Hot Chili Peppers covered his “They’re Red Hot” on 1991’s Blood Sugar Sex Magik). The inspiration musicians take from Johnson’s music doesn’t appear to be in danger of drying up anytime soon. But part of every blues fan has to wonder: what else can be done with it? Where can this music go from here?
Mohr, too, was wary. “I resisted it,” he admits. “It was my manager’s idea... I didn’t have a deep familiarity with Delta Blues music, ironically. I knew a lot about Chicago Blues and Stax, but not Robert Johnson and Charley Patton.” Mohr also worried about the project’s commercial potential. “I was terrified from that standpoint, because there’s no sure sign of death than when you playing blues on a Monday night when you are rock band.” His bandmates were similarly hesitant to dive in and risk being thought of as yet another blues-rock outfit. They needed some initial coercion.
“But it has been very positive,” Mohr says. “It’s a new audience for us, and blues audiences are a rabid bunch. So that part of it is really fun... Blues is a really tough genre to feel like you are adding anything to it and we were all concerned.”
The album, timed to arrive with Johnson’s birthday, also wasn’t originally conceived as a straight-ahead blues affair. “Nobody else was doing anything for the occasion,” says Mohr. “There was an opportunity for us. Originally the concept was to bring all kinds of different artists together from different genres, but it ended being more blues-centered.”
The eventual lineup is impressive. King guests on “Cross Road Blues” (familiarized by Cream as “Crossroads”) and “When You’ve Got a Good Friend,” with both Foster and Sumlin pitching in. Musselwhite blows harp on “Come On In My Kitchen,” “Last Fair Deal Gone Done” and “Sweet Home Chicago,” where he’s joined by Edwards. Mohr plays a solo version of “All My Love is Love in Vain,” and Cedric Burnside, the grandson of blues great R.L. Burnside, plays drums on “If I Had Possession Over Judgement Day” and “Preachin’ Blues” and guitar on “Ramblin’ On My Mind.” Lightnin’ Malcolm plays electric and acoustic guitars all over a number of tracks.
On January 18, Mohr and his Big Head Todd bandmates -- bassist Rob Squires, drummer Brian Nevin and keyboardist Jeremy Lawton -- will play a quartet show at Infinity Music Hall & Bistro in Norfolk. With almost three decades’ worth of material to draw from (Mohr, Squires and Nevin, who all attended high school in Columbine, Co., have been playing together since 1986; Lawton joined later), Mohr says the show will be “Big Head Todd and the Monsters, but we are going to play some blues. That’s part of our DNA now. But we have a large catalog now and we try to accommodate a lot of requests.”
After several releases and bouts of incessant touring, a 1993 album, Sister Sweetly took off, achieving platinum sales and spawning three radio-friendly singles. They haven’t been able to duplicate that level of success with subsequent recordings, but Mohr says they’ve weathered changes in the music business by remaining a tight unit. “Part of it is fear of having a day job,” Mohr says. “We honestly are great friends and work well together musically and it’s been an enjoyable partnership. We haven’t had an occasion to think about things differently. We’ve all really appreciated the opportunity to be in a band together.”
Mohr describes the possibilities opened up by the Johnson project as “fresh and exciting.” He talks about “unexplored branches of an old tree,” citing the Black Keys and the White Stripes as two contemporary examples of where the blues can lead, if allowed.
“There are a few things I’ve learned that I’m talking with me that I think are important,” Mohr says. “One is the non-commercial nature of it. The blues doesn’t have choruses. It’s a reflection of life, good and bad, and it doesn’t belong to anyone. It’s not ‘Look at all these fancy notes I can play.’ It’s three chords and a story. That’s a liberating thing for me after decades in the record business trying to create the next hit. The blues is a reflection of a moment, and it has to live in a certain realm.”