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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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