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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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Review: Buddy Guy and Bettye LaVette

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(Above: B.B. King and Buddy Guy jam on “Rock Me Baby” with Eric Clapton and Jimmie Vaughan at a recent Crossroads Festival.)

By Joel Francis
The Kansas City Star

Few in the sold-out crowd that greeted B.B. King, the 84-year-old King of the Blues, at the Midland theater on Friday night expected the energy and vitality of King’s essential “Live at the Regal” album, released 45 years ago. It is also likely few expected the extensive banter that filled King’s 90 minutes onstage.

King’s set opened with a 10-minute vamp that allowed everyone in his eight-piece backing band the chance to solo. Once King took the stage, he proved he still had the chops and voice fans love. His excellent reading of the blues warhorse “Key to the Highway” melded nicely into King’s own “Blues Man.”

Another classic, “See That My Grave Is Kept Clean,” was driven by a military cadence on the snare drum. When coupled with King’s four-piece horn arrangement, the song recalled a New Orleans funeral march. The band followed that number with a song King recorded with U2 back in the ‘80s. In their most upbeat performance of the night, the King and his band lit into “When Love Comes To Town” with surprising energy. Sadly, it was not to last.

From there King’s set was as much a monologue as it was a musical dialogue. Here are some of his best one-liners:
•    “You can look at me and tell I ain’t no Michael Phelps. I don’t smoke.”
•    After hitting a bum note on Lucille, his guitar: “I know I shouldn’t have let her go to the liquor store.”
•    After the audience response didn’t meet expectations: “I think you’re teasing me. You sound like Tiger Woods.”

As King’s chitchat neared the 20-minute mark, fans started to grow restless. Some shouted song requests; others just yelled “play something.” King apologized for not being able to play one of the requests, then continued rambling about Viagra and instructing men how to set the mood by playing Willie Nelson’s “Always On My Mind.”

After a bizarre musical riff on ED medications, King finally gave the crowd another song in the form of “Rock Me Baby.” The aborted performance led into King’s signature number, “The Thrill Is Gone.” Even then, King littered the song with asides and shout-outs to the sound men and lighting crew. When the throng realized they weren’t going to get another full performance, they started leaving en masse.

No one can fault King for growing old. He’s lived a rich life and brought joy to millions of people around the globe. Perhaps King feels he needs to stay onstage for so long to justify his high ticket price. If this is the case, he may be better off knocking a couple bucks off the ticket and cutting half of his horn section. (The quartet was only onstage half the time anyway.) While King’s onstage generosity is commendable, fans might be more appreciative of a shorter set loaded with music than the current drawn-out arrangement.

It would be unfair to label Chicago blues legend Buddy Guy the evening’s “opening act.” Guy just happened to go onstage first.

Listening to Guy is like hearing the history of electric blues on shuffle. Backed by a tight four-piece band, the 73-year-old guitarist tore through a 65-minute tribute to his heroes and contemporaries.

Guy teased out an abstract solo over the familiar opening chords of “Hoochie Coochie Man” in a setting that was more Thelonious Monk than Muddy Waters, and took particular delight in delivering the song’s more racy lyrics. Guy’s tribute to his late friend and collaborator Junior Wells on “Hoodoo Man” was another high point.

The night’s signature moment started with Guy playing so quietly one could hear his amp buzzing over the P.A. As “Drowning on Dry Land” progressed, Guy eased his way off-stage and into the crowd. He nailed a long solo while walking nearly two-thirds of the way up the floor, and finished it plopped down in a surprised fan’s seat.

Before leaving the stage, Guy paid tribute to his friend and inspiration, B.B. King. Growing up in Louisiana, Guy said, there were no music shops, just stores that happened to have instruments in one corner. Before King’s records came out, inventory was priced to move. But after “Three O’Clock Blues,” guitars were suddenly harder to come by.

B.B. King setlist: I Need You So, Let the Good Times Roll, Key to the Highway>Blues Man, See That My Grave Is Kept Clean, When Love Comes To Town, You Are My Sunshine, “ED Medication Blues,” Rock Me Baby, The Thrill Is Gone.

Buddy Guy setlist: Nobody Understands Me But My Guitar, Muddy Waters medley: Hoochie Coochie Man/She’s 19 Years Old/Love Her With A Feeling, Hoodoo Man, Slippin’ Out, Slippin’ In, Drowning On Dry Land, Close to You, Boom Boom, Strange Brew, Voodoo Chile, Sunshine of Your Love.

Keep reading:

Review: Buddy Guy (2008)

Review: Buddy and Bettye at Roots N Blues N BBQ Fest 2008

The True Story of Cadillac Records

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howlin-wolf

Above: The Wolf howls.

By Joel Francis

Leonard Chess’ motivation for buying the property on South Cottage Grove in Chicago that would become the Macomba Lounge was clear: he thought it would make money.

When his brother Phil got out of the Army in 1946, he went straight to work with his brother at the club. It was located in a rough black neighborhood known for prostitution and drugs, but within four years it was a prime haunt for both musicians and patrons.

The Macomba Lounge burnt to the ground in 1950, but the Chess brothers’ back-up plan was well underway. Shortly after buying the Macomba, the brothers established Aristocrat Records as a way to record the musicians who played the lounge. Instead of having the bands show up on Cottage Grove to play, they would show up at the Aristocrat offices several blocks down the street and record.

It was a far cry from the world the Polish immigrants born Lejzor and Fiszel Czyz left. Their father was a shoemaker and the family of five lived in one large cement-floored room with no electricity, running water or heat. In the winter, the family brought their cow inside for warmth.

The timing for Aristocrat Records’ foray into “race” music couldn’t have been better. Five million African-Americans fled north to escape Jim Crow and the Ku Klux Klan in the second Great Migration. One of the emigrants was a Mississippi sharecropper who had been recorded in 1941 by Alan Lomax for the Library of Congress.

McKinely Morganfield was a hot commodity at the juke joints and house parties around Stovall plantation, but he thirsted for bigger success and escape from the cotton fields. In 1943, he moved to Chicago, but his acoustic guitar and “country” style didn’t play as well. After a couple years driving trucks during the day and playing clubs by night, he was given an electric guitar. Bolstered by his new, amplified instrument, Morganfield, better known as Muddy Waters, married his native Delta blues style with the hard, electric soul of his new hometown.

In 1948, Waters cut two songs for Aristocrat that launched his career and established the Chess brothers as players in the music business. “I Can’t Be Satisfied” and “I Feel Like Going Home” convinced Leonard and Phil the blues were the way to go, and they gradually started letting Waters bring his sidemen and other musicians in to cut sides. By the time the name of the label was changed to Chess Records in 1950, the label’s stable included harmonica king Little Walter, guitarists Robert Nighthawk and Jimmy Rodgers and bass maestro Willie Dixon.

A former boxer, Dixon was another Mississippi transplant and the architect of not only the Chess sound, but the post-World War II blues scene that continues to thrive today. Dixon was the Chess brothers’ right-hand man. While the brothers hovered around the blues scene they could only get so close. Dixon was in the scene, connected to all the major players and all the hot trends. Dixon had an ear to the track, but he forged his own path as well, writing the lion’s share of the genre’s biggest numbers: “Hoochie Coochie Man,” “My Babe,” “Little Red Rooster,” and “Spoonful.” Rare was the Chess release that didn’t feature Dixon’s bass playing, songwriting or production skills – most had all three. When the blues caught on in England in the 1960s, Dixon arranged several annual American Folk Blues Festival tours of Europe that featured many of the day’s biggest stars (many of whom, coincidentally, also recorded for Chess). Dixon once said “I am the blues.” He was not bragging.

While Phil was in Chicago recording Dixon’s songs, Leonard was on the road promoting, meeting with distributors, disc jockeys and learning the business. On one trip to Memphis, Leonard made a contact who put him in touch with Sam Phillips. Phillips hadn’t established Sun Studios yet, but his legendary ear was already glued to the ground. Phillips sent Chess his recording of Ike Turner’s song “Rocket 88” recorded by Turner with singer Jackie Brenston and some songs by Chester Burnett.

The 300-pound Burnett was better known by his stage name, Howlin’ Wolf. Yet another Mississippi escapee, Wolf moved to Memphis after his military discharge following World War II and had a radio show in West Memphis, Ark. His company on the airways included Rufus Thomas and B.B. King. Like King, Wolf cut some albums for the Bihari brothers and Modern Records, but after Phillips slipped Chess a copy of “How Many More Years” a bidding war erupted for Wolf’s music. Chess won the battle and Wolf moved to Chicago to cut records with Dixon and compete with Waters on the legendary Maxwell Street blues scene.

Keep reading The True Story of Cadillac Records.
Part Two: Chess Records and the Birth of Rock and Roll
Part Three: The Final Days and Legacy of Chess Records

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