By Andy J. Gordon
On January 29, 2011, Big Head Blues Club gave a stunning performance at Segerstrom Hall, in the Orange County Performing Arts Center. The band is an ad hoc ensemble that recorded an album, and is touring in honor of the 100th birthday of blues originator, Robert Johnson. The live show contained all the members of Big Head Todd & The Monsters with special guests David “Honeyboy” Edwards, Hubert Sumlin, Cedric Burnside & Lightnin’ Malcolm. In various incarnations, they gave brilliant performances that offered inspired rearrangements of Johnson’s best known songs. The breathtaking Segerstrom Hall gave an air of sophistication to the occasion. If anything, it restrained the attentive audience who might otherwise have been dancing with abandon in a more casual setting.
The show opened with Todd Park Mohr (www.bigheadtodd.com) playing solo acoustic guitar on a few classic blues tunes. Monsters keyboardist, Jeremy Lawton, and guest guitarist Lightnin’ Malcolm joined Mohr on “Kind Hearted Woman Blues,” Johnson’s first recording. Cedric Burnside, who usually tours with Lightnin’ Malcolm (http://cedricburnsideandlightninmalcolm.com) and is the grandson of legendary blues guitarist R.L. Burnside, joined the group for the next song, “Ramblin’ On My Mind.” After a few more songs from the Big Head Blues Club album, Mohr introduced Hubert Sumlin (www.hubertsumlinblues.com,) the great guitarist for Howlin’ Wolf. Sumlin wheeled out his oxygen tank and took a seat. The band launched into a raucous version of Howlin’ Wolf’s “Smokestack Lightning.” They then segued into the American standard “Sittin’ On Top of the World,” which was recorded by Sumlin with Howlin’ Wolf in 1957.
Things went from sublime to ridiculous when David “Honeyboy” Edwards (www.davidhoneyboyedwards.com) was helped to the stage by a couple of burly aids. Once he sat down next to Sumlin and strapped on his guitar, the old magic burst forth from his fingers. The 95 year old Honeyboy was a friend and collaborator of Robert Johnson. With multiple generations of blues expertise on stage, the audience was treated to several additional Johnson compositions and other blues classics. Sumlin, Edwards, and Malcolm all took solos during Howlin’ Wolf’s “Killing Floor” and Johnson’s “Come On In My Kitchen.” The encore opened with Mohr on stage alone with his silver hollow body acoustic guitar performing “All My Love is Love in Vain.” The entire band came out for the Johnson classic “Cross Roads Blues” that has been covered throughout the years as Crossroads, most notably by Eric Clapton. The show ended with Johnson’s “Sweet Home Chicago.” The audience gave all of the musicians an extended standing ovation and seemed stunned by what they had just witnessed.
It was a unique experience to see such a collection of living blues history paying tribute to Robert Johnson. The album, Big Head Blues Club 100 Years of Robert Johnson will be available on March 1, 2011. Additional guests appearing on the album include B.B. King, Charlie Musselwhite, and Ruthie Foster. The concert tour continues to hit venues around the country. If they are in your neighborhood, be sure to go to one of the shows. It is a once in a lifetime opportunity to capture the legendary spirit and brilliance of Robert Johnson through the talent of some great keepers of the flame.
Big Head Blues Club Blues At the Crossroads – The Robert Johnson
Centennial Concert tour dates:
Feb. 24 Ridgefield, CT Ridgefield Playhouse
Feb. 25 Princeton, NJ McCarter Theatre
Feb. 26 Blue Bell, PA Montgomery County Community College
Feb. 27 New Bedford, MA Zeiterion Theater
March 4 Milwaukee, WI Potowatomi Casino
March 5 Omaha, NE Holland Performing Arts Center
March 6 Minneapolis, MN Orchestra Hall
March 8 Urbana, IL Krannert Center – Tyrone Festival Theatre
Photo courtesy of Andy J. Gordon