The latest Big Head Todd and the Monsters CD isn't a BHTM CD at all. It's by a collective called the Big Head Blues Club and it's called 100 Years Of Robert Johnson.
As the title suggests, the CD is a tribute to the legendary Delta bluesman, and while the Big Head Blues Club includes the four members of Big Head Todd and the Monsters (singer/guitarist Todd Park Mohr, drummer Brian Nevin, bassist Rob Squires and keyboardist Jeremy Lawton) it also features a number of notable special guests, including B.B. King, Hubert Sumlin, David "Honeyboy" Edwards, singer Ruthie Foster and harmonica great Charlie Musselwhite.
But if 100 Years Of Robert Johnson isn't exactly a Big Head Todd and the Monsters CD, Mohr said the project (which also involved a tour earlier this year that featured guest appearances from the likes of former Howlin' Wolf guitarist Hubert Sumlin, Edwards and harmonica legend James Cotton) will have a lasting effect on the band.
As Mohr explained in a recent phone interview, while his writing for Big Head Todd and the Monsters had always had a blues influence, it was a different strain of blues from the earthy, acoustic variety that Johnson helped pioneer in the 1930s.
"My experience with the blues is more Chicago (blues) and more from what happened in the '60s and the '70s," Mohr said. "Ray Charles and Aretha (Franklin) were big influences on me, as well as a lot of the Stax, the Wilson Picketts and that group, and also Albert King and obviously B.B. King and John Lee and Albert Collins. Those were big influences for me. I just had never had much exposure to what happened before that."
Mohr said already he feels the education he received in the music of Johnson and other early Delta bluesmen is now influencing his own writing.
"I've felt kind of freed up in a lot of ways by the idea that blues is a traditional music, and when you participate in blues, part of the idea is honoring your elders, acknowledging them, and also the tradition," he said. "You just don't have that in contemporary music or rock music. It's sort of like 'Hey, check me out. I'm a new thing on the block and this is my great new song.' The truth is we all are borrowing. There's no such thing as really an original composition. One thing to me that's so cool about blues is there's that understanding that music belongs to everybody. That's definitely going to affect how I move forward."
Mohr said one of the biggest revelations in getting to know the music of Johnson and other early Delta blues artists was that the music was much richer and unconventional than he thought.
"Getting to know the lyrics, the lyrics are pretty magnificent really," Mohr said. "This kind of blues, there's not really choruses, and when you just listen to him sing for the first couple of times, there's a lot of stuff lyrically that's kind of difficult to pick up on. But I find the lyrics to be really spectacular and super engaging. Then the other part of it, just musically, there are a lot of extra bars and skipped beats and a lot of wild, very different structures and chord changes. You think of the blues, and most people are just familiar with the straight 12-bar blues that everybody knows, and the Delta traditions are really diverse."
Mohr said he believes the Delta blues artists were also influenced by other forms, such as ragtime and vaudeville, and those styles filtered into their music, which especially in Johnson's case was deceptively complex and sophisticated.
"These guys really had to learn it all to survive," he said. "So I think that there's just a richness and a diversity and kind of a tenderness to it that kind of got forgotten about. When blues sort of became mainstream, I think it also became a macho bar band-y thing. That's what's exciting to me about the Delta tradition, I think that it's something that can be rediscovered and has a lot of contemporary things that will make it appeal to younger generations."
While the Big Head Blues Club will remain a going concern, Mohr and his bandmates are back to concentrating on Big Head Todd and the Monsters, playing shows this fall that feature material from across a career that begin in 1986 and now features eight studio CDs, the most recent of which is Rock Steady. Mohr said the group has by no means put that album on the back burner.
"We have Rock Steady, which is a fairly new album for the band and we're stoked about that," he said. "We're on our second single at radio with that. And we have some other blues things coming up. We've kind of got an alter ego with this Big Head Blues Club, and it's really fun to me. So we're going to continue to do some blues stuff and develop this blues club idea alongside Big Head Todd and the Monsters."