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(Above: Big Head Todd and the Monsters burn down the house with the mellow, jangly “City on Fire.”)

By Joel Francis
The Kansas City Star 

Less than four months after swinging through town in their rootsy Big Head Blues Club guise, the Colorado quartet Big Head Todd and the Monsters delivered a full-on rock show Saturday night at Crossroads KC.

February’s show at the Midtown was a tribute to Robert Johnson, complete with guests like celebrated blues sidemen Hubert Sumlin and James Cotton. Although the most recent show didn’t have all of the former’s trappings and production, it still felt like an upbeat homage to the blues and the Monster’s influences.

The 100-minute set featured a couple Johnson numbers, both rearranged to the point that it’s doubtful that Johnson’s ghost would recognize them as his own. “Last Fair Deal Gone Down” rested on a loping bassline until the end. The band seemed to change its mind at the coda and switched to a more traditional arrangement that served them well.

The best numbers were the ones that traded the band’s effortlessly smooth sound for chutzpah. Frontman Todd Park Mohr showed surprising grit and gravitas tackling John Lee Hooker and Howlin’ Wolf. It is no coincidence that the show’s two highest moments pivoted on the readings of “Smokestack Lightnin’” and Hooker’s “Boogie Chillen” and “Boom Boom.”

Several numbers, such as “Sister Sweetly” and “Back to the Garden,” mined the electric organ and wah wah guitar sound of Parliament/Funkadelic. “Neckbreaker” combined the lyrical style of Jimi Hendrix with the chaotic bridge from “Whole Lotta Love.”

Other surprising facets of the band’s sound included John Mellencamp on “Dinner with Ivan” and Bob Dylan and the Band on the excellent “City on Fire” and “Rocksteady,” which used the same chord progression as “All Along the Watchtower.” Keyboard player Jeremy Lawton frequently channeled Steve Winwood or Ray Manzarek. His beefy parts helped the lofty choruses soar even higher.

The Monsters work hard, but their sound is so polished that even when Mohr is powering through a solo the overall performance still sounds laid-back. It’s hard to be offended by the band’s understated pop melodies, but it’s also hard to get too excited about them. Ergo, the lawn at Crossroads was barely a third full, at best. Everyone there was either a die-hard fan, or didn’t have anything better to do.

By the time the house lights briefly came on before the encore, it seemed everyone who wasn’t a big-time fan had long moseyed to the exit. Those who remained, however, were treated to two of the band’s biggest and best numbers, “Broken Hearted Savior” and “Circle.”

Setlist: All the Love You Need; Sister Sweetly; Come On In My Kitchen; Dinner With Ivan; Bittersweet; Last Fair Deal Gone Down; Neckbreaker; Smokestack Lightnin’; Cashbox; Helpless; City On Fire; Back to the Garden; Under A Silvery Moon; Dirty Juice; Conquistador; Boogie Chillen/Boom Boom; It’s Alright; Rocksteady. Encore: Broken-Hearted Savior;  Circle.

Keep reading:

Review: Big Head Blues Club

Review: Jack Johnson

Review: Pete Yorn, Ben Kweller

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