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(Above: Blues legends Hubert Sumlin and James Cotton help Big Head Todd and the Monsters visit the “Killing Floor.”)

By Joel Francis
The Kansas City Star

Rock and roll tributes to the blues are hardly a novel concept, but the glossy, contemporary rock of Big Head Todd and the Monsters makes them an unexpected outfit to try such a feat.

Saturday’s concert at the Uptown was billed as “Back at the Crossroads: The Robert Johnson Centennial Concerts.” The four-piece, Colorado rock band aimed to celebrate Johnson in the months leading up to his 100th birthday in May, but this wasn’t quite the case. Johnson figured prominently in the set, but there was also a heavy dose of Chicago blues. The night was more like an exposition of the genre’s most overt influences on rock. Put another way, the first set opened with Todd Park Mohr alone onstage playing the dobro and ended less than an hour later with dueling drum solos.

Taking the stage in a dark suit and black fedora, frontman Mohr quickly put any expectations for the Monsters’ back catalog to bed, telling the one-third capacity crowd the only thing they’d be hearing was “straight, natural blues.” He was right for the most part, but an audience clamoring for “Bittersweet” – one of the band’s biggest tunes – needn’t have worried. The songs in the last third of the set sounded like typical Big Head Todd material outfitted with familiar blues lyrics.

Mohr opened with three stellar, solo acoustic numbers before being joined by Missouri native Lightnin’ Malcolm and Monsters keyboardist Jeremy Lawton. That trio, along with bass player Rob Squires who entered later, formed the core band for the night, present on nearly every number. They were augmented by drummer Cedric Burnside, grandson of the Fat Possum bluesman R.L. Burnside and Malcolm’s longtime touring partner, and Monsters drummer Brian Nevin.

The real blues cred, however, came from 79-year-old guitarist Hubert Sumlin, and 75-year-old harp man James Cotton. Sumlin’s playing can be heard on most of Howlin’ Wolf’s classic material and Cotton played on many great Muddy Waters records. Half a century later, both men were in just as fine of form today as they were in their Chess Records heyday. Sumlin’s soling was nimble and his vocal turn on “Sittin’ On Top of the World” was strong. Cotton made his harmonica moan and wail like a woman in pleasure and had so much fun during one solo that he started laughing when it was done.

Big Head Todd and the Monsters are no strangers to working with blues legends. In 1997 they worked with John Lee Hooker on a cover of his “Boom Boom” that reached the Top 40. Opinions of that track will likely frame one’s appreciation for the evening: The band either misappropriated a hero to dumb down a song or paid honest homage using their familiar idiom.

The best moments were the spare opening numbers, particularly Lightnin’ Malcolm’s duets with Cotton on “Walkin’ Blues” and “Future Blues.” Mohr really pushed himself at the mic all night and did a great job approximating the Wolf’s moans and rasp on the Chicago numbers. Cotton or Sumlin were onstage for about half of the two-hour set’s 22 songs. Their contributions were always a treat.

After the first, mostly acoustic set, the band took a 20 minute break. They returned for another hour of electric music that blurred the lines between Chicago blues, traditional bar band fare and the typical Big Head sound. Not everything worked – covers of ZZ Top’s “Jesus Just Left Chicago” and a slick arrangement that removed any sense of doom from “Last Fair Deal Gone Down” were questionable. But there was no doubt everyone onstage was having fun.

Setlist: Love in Vain; Stones In My Passway; Dry Spell; Kind-Hearted Woman Blues; If I Had Possession Over Judgment Day; Walkin’ Blues; Future Blues; Viola Lee Blues; When You Got A Good Friend; Travelling Riverside Blues. Intermission. Ramblin’ On My Mind; Preachin’ Blues (Up Jumped the Devil); Wang Dang Doodle; Sittin’ On Top of the World; Killing Floor; I Love the Life I Live, I Live the Life I Love; Jesus Just Left Chicago; Come On In My Kitchen; Last Fair Deal Gone Down. Encore: Cross Road Blues; I Believe I’ll Dust My Broom > Sweet Home Chicago.

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(Above: Jonny Lang and Aerosmith’s Brad Whitford blaze through “Fire” on March 6, 2010, at The Joint in Las Vegas.)

By Joel Francis
The Kansas City Star

The lineup for Tuesday’s Experience Hendrix concert at the Uptown Theater seemed to set up a joke: How many guitarists does it take to pay tribute to the most celebrated axeman of all time? The answer: Fourteen, including half of Los Lobos, all of Living Colour, a pair of virtuosos, a handful of bluesmen and several contemporaries.

HENDRIX_FY_031610_CGO_002F

Bass player Billy Cox met Jimi Hendrix while the two were in the Army. He is the last living musician from any of the bands Hendrix lead.

Billy Cox, the Band of Gypsys bass player and Jimi Hendrix’ last living band mate, opened the night with a heartfelt thank you and romp through “Stone Free.” Backing him on drums was Chris Layton, better known for his time backing Stevie Ray Vaughan in Double Trouble, and Ernie Isley of the Isley Brothers. The star-power of the opening lineup may have had the loaded house drooling over their guitar magazines, but they didn’t have long to revel.

Every 20 minutes or so, another pairing of musicians emerged, each seeming to emphasize a different aspect of Hendrix’ music. His rhythm and blues roots came out in Living Colour’s set, while members of Los Lobos paid tribute to his roots and Kenny Wayne Shepherd emphasized the rock star angle.

Jonny Lang’s performance of “Fire” was the first explosive moment of the night. Backed by Brad Whitford of Aerosmith and a vivacious chorus of singers, Lang’s feverish vocals and impassioned playing drove the crowd to their feet. Whitford was finally able to emerge from the long shadow of his Aerosmith band mate Joe Perry as he and Lang traded solos.

Lang’s set was followed by Kenny Wayne Shepherd’s explosive interpretation of “Voodoo Child (Slight Return).” Knowing his boss was about to burn down the fret board, singer Noah Hunt, who also sings in the Kenny Wayne Shepherd Band, abandoned the stage after completing his verses. Alone onstage, save the rhythm section of Layton and Scott Nelson, Shepherd struck about every rock star pose imaginable as he soloed endlessly to the rapture of the crowd.

Susan Tedeschi was the lone intruder into this guy’s night out. Although she wasn’t given a set of her own, each of her frequent guest appearances was inspiring. Her singing on “One Rainy Wish” added an earthy sensuality and vulnerability to Hendrix’ lyrics, and her tasty guitar solos were a welcome relief from the pyrotechnics.

The night’s two dozen songs spotlighted classic rock staples “Purple Haze,” “Foxy Lady” and “The Wind Cries Mary,” and also unearthed some deeper treasures. Cox celebrated the guitarist he met in the Army with “Message of Love,” a song he a Hendrix recorded on the “Band of Gypsys” album. Eric Johnson embraced Hendrix’ love of unusual textures with the deep cut “House Burning Down.”

Robert Randolph and Sacred Steel brought new life into “Purple Haze.” The result wasn’t too different from what Randolph’s Family Band typically serves up, but the playing was much more elastic bouncing between the trio of steel guitars. Eric Johnson enlisted three drummers to help summon the heavy, drugged feel on “Are You Experienced.” Later, Joe Satriani had no trouble coaxing alien sounds from his guitar during “Third Stone From the Sun.”

Midway through the set, guitarist emeritus Hubert Sumlin emerged to represent the pre-Hendrix guitar world. Backed by Tedeschi, and Cesar Rosas and David Hildago of Los Lobos, Sumlin showed none of his 78 years powering through “Killing Floor,” a song he originally cut with Howlin’ Wolf for Chess Records in 1966.
HENDRIX_FY_031610_CGO_001F
While all the expected heavy hitters drew big responses, some of the evening’s best moments occurred during songs Hendrix didn’t write. Robert Randolph and Sacred Steel teamed with Cox and Living Colour singer Corey Glover for a jubilant gallop through Buddy Miles’ “Them Changes.” Cox tried to end the number, but Randolph wouldn’t let it stop, motivating Glover’s fervent yelps with his riffs. Early in the night, Isley’s unaccompanied incorporation of “Amazing Grace,” mostly played with his teeth, brought back shades of Woodstock.

After every trick and novelty had been exhausted, Cox returned to the stage and closed the night with the blues staple “Red House.” When all the performers were brought out for a final bow, they extended nearly all the way across the stage. Evidently it takes a lot of bodies to fill some very big shoes.

PROGRAM
Stone Free – Billy Cox, Ernie Isley
Message To Love – Billy Cox, Ernie Isley
Manic Depression > Amazing Grace – Ernie Isley
Power of Soul – Living Colour
Crosstown Traffic – Living Colour
House Burning Down – Eric Johnson
Bold As Love – Eric Johnson
One Rainy Wish – Eric Johnson, Susan Tedeschi
Are You Experienced – Eric Johnson, Will Calhoun
Fire – Jonny Lang, Brad Whitford
The Wind Cries Mary – Jonny Lang, Brad Whitford
Spanish Castle Magic – Jonny Lang, Brad Whitford, Susan Tedeschi
I Don’t Live Today – Kenny Wayne Shepherd, Noah Hunt
Come One – Kenny Wayne Shepherd, Noah Hunt
Voodoo Chile > Voodoo Child (Slight Return) – Kenny Wayne Shepherd, Noah Hunt
Can You See Me – David Hildago, Cesar Rosas
Little Wing – David Hildago, Cesar Rosas
Killing Floor – Hubert Sumlin, David Hildago, Cesar Rosas, Susan Tedeschi
Purple Haze – Robert Randolph and Sacred Steel
Them Changes – Robert Randolph and Sacred Steel, Billy Cox, Corey Glover
Third Stone from the Sun – Joe Satriani, Corey Glover, Doug Wimbish, Will Calhoun
Foxy Lady – Joe Satriani, Living Colour
All Along the Watchtower – Joe Satriani, Living Colour
Red House – Billy Cox, Joe Satriani, Brad Whitford, Robert Randolph, Will Calhoun

Note: Except when replaced by Living Colour or Billy Cox, Chris Layton and Scott Nelson played drums and bass. The Sacred Steel is Robert Randolph, Darick Campbell and Aubrey Ghent. Living Colour is Will Calhoun, Corey Glover, Vernon Reid and Doug Wimbish.

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