Big Head Todd keeps Tahoe in red, white and blues
June 30, 2011
After more than two decades in the recording business, “Big Head” Todd Mohr went back a century to improve his craft.
Big Head Todd and the Monsters’ 10th studio album is “100 Years of Robert Johnson.” The most influential bluesman’s 100th birthday was in May.
“I’ve been a blues fan my whole life but I really didn’t have a lot of familiarity with pre-war Delta blues … so there was a little bit of a learning curve for me,” Mohr told Lake Tahoe Action. “It was a life-changing, eye-opening experience to discover such a wealth of fabulous music.”
Sirius-XM DJ Bill Wax in his keynote speech this winter at Blues Foundation’s Keeping the Blues Alive gathering in Memphis gave industry leaders ideas about how to promote the genre. He said artists should produce albums honoring the 100th anniversary of Johnson, who only recorded 29 songs but has been covered by nearly every blues player along with rock artists such as the Rolling Stones, Lynyrd Skynyrd, Led Zeppelin and Eric Clapton.
However, Big Head Todd and the Monsters and some notable guest artists were the only ones to make a Johnson tribute record this year.
“I resisted the idea initially because I thought there was a lot of people out there who could have done a better job than me that were a little bit closer to that tradition,” Mohr said. ‘But I am very fortunate to have had the opportunity and that my manager coerced me.
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“(Blues music) is the cornerstone of all Western culture, almost. So much of rock ‘n’ roll and contemporary music was inspired by what happened in the Delta from Elvis Presley on, so it’s hard to overestimate the debt that we owe for that music.”
Wax on his show regularly plays “Crossroad Blues” by the Big Head Blues Club which is a duet with Mohr and B.B. King. Harmonica legend Charlie Musselwhite also plays on the album, along with David “Honeyboy” Edwards and Hubert Sumlin, best known as a guitarist for Howlin’ Wolf.
Edwards and Sumlin toured with the band.
“We had an 85 year old and a 95 year old with us on our bus for a couple of months and those people don’t sleep,” Mohr said. “They stay up all night telling stories.”
The Monsters have previously covered blues. The band cut “Boom Boom” in 1998, being inspired after sharing a studio with John Lee Hooker. Its 2010 album, “Rocksteady,” includes Wolf’s “Smokestack Lightning,” a song that Wax pointed out as having contemporary popularity for being used on a television commercial describing how blue pills lead to hard times.
Sunday’s free concert at Squaw Valley USA will feature tunes from “Rocksteady” along with older tracks.
“With 10 studio albums there’s a lot to choose from to keep our shows fresh,” Mohr said. “We play a different set every night and take requests and try not to know what we’re going to do next as much as possible.”
“Rocksteady” features an island-flavored tune, “Beautiful,” which would be appropriate for a midsummer twilight Tahoe show. The album also includes “Muhammad Ali,” an homage to a favorite of Mohr’s father. “The more I got to know about (Ali’s) life,” Mohr said. “The other aspects of his life, he made a very compelling figure.”
Mohr also plays saxophone, and in “I Hate it When You’re Gone,” uses a Clarence Clemons’ riff from “Tenth Avenue Freeze Out.” Clemons died last week at age 69.
Was Clemons an influence?
“Of course,” Mohr said. “He was and (Bruce) Springsteen is obviously an extremely moving artist to me and a really important figure to our band. We are certainly still mourning Clarence and will miss him.”
Big Head Todd and the Monsters have an extraordinary rapport with its fans, who all received free downloads of the 2007 album “All the Love you Need.” It has for several years traveled on cruise ships with legions of fans, and this fall for the first time has been invited to the Legendary Rhythm & Blues Cruise with about two dozen bands.
“We’re a very fan-oriented band,” Mohr said. “We try to autograph after shows and take trips with our fans. The centerpiece of our career is that relationship, and having a quality relationship you don’t run into a lot these days with contemporary music.”
Mohr accepted a singular request, and it led to “Blue Sky,” which the band played live for the Space Shuttle Discovery tour on a 2005 mission, the first for the space program after the Columbia tragedy.
“We encountered a fan who quickly became a friend through one of those cruises,” Mohr said. “He was a higher up at NASA who recommended to me that I should consider writing a song for their launches because all they had to play for them was ‘Rocket Man.’ I don’t think anybody’s written a song specifically for a space program. I could be wrong. A few months later I came upon the inspiration to write that song and have had a great relationship with NASA ever since.”
Mohr continues to reach out to fans, talking to viewers and playing a new song on a video about current events every day on http://tpmvault.blogspot.com/. It’s called the Daily Blues.
Big Head Todd and the Monsters are from the Rocky Mountains but are quite familiar with the Sierra Nevada.
“We’ve stopped in Tahoe since the beginning of our career,” Mohr said. “Twenty some-odd years ago we drove our van out there and went slumming for work. We just really love the region and we’ve always had a lot of nice audiences out there so we are looking forward to coming back.”