Big Head Todd takes on Robert Johnson

by Ryan Snyder

Big Head Todd & the Monsters channel the blues masters for Robert Johnson’s 100 th birthday. (courtesy photo)

Maybe the inclusion of Big Head Todd & the Monsters on an obscure 1995 compilation call Modern Blues Legends was a brilliant piece of foresight. The Colorado rock quartet inexplicably found themselves among the likes of Johnny Winter, Robert Cray and Jimmy Page at a time when they were only first being noticed. Sixteen years later, frontman Todd Park Mohr has fully realized a fascination with the blues the band only hinted at via covers of Led Zeppelin, Howlin’ Wolf and the Rolling Stones. Called the “Big Head Blues Club,” the band was joined by the likes of Hubert Sumerlin, BB King, Ruthie Foster and the recently passed David “Honeyboy” Edwards to pay tribute to Robert Johnson in what would have been his 100th year.

Y!W: With Big Head Todd & the Monsters starting out as a blues band yourselves, how did you come to accept that your future was as a rock and roll group?

TPM: As time went on we had a hankering to just write more original music. I guess there were more creative outlets in rock versus blues, but I guess everybody has to start off someplace. It was something I understood and was passionate about. We’ve had some really neat opportunities to revisit those roots though.

Y!W: How long had you been trying to do something like the Big Head Blues Club before you finally had the opportunity?

TPM: I was sort of talked into this project by my manager. It was something that I initially didn’t want to do so much. Especially tackling Robert Johnson, it was a pretty difficult niche and music that I didn’t understand so well. I knew about the electric blues after the ’50s, but I wasn’t really familiar with the acoustic side of it until after this project.

Y!W: How much time did you spend studying his music before you approached it?

TPM: Probably over a year. It was two years planning as a project, but there was about a year that I got woodshedded with Robert Johnson material. I started listening and then playing, but singing it was actually one of the more challenging parts of it.

Y!W: I noticed your singing changed slightly with Rocksteady. There seems to be a lot more grit to your vocals. Is that a coincidence or just a product of time?

TPM: It’s a product of time, I’ve been getting better as a singer and I enjoy using that part of my voice a little bit more. After studying a lot of the blues singers I’ve been taking in a lot of their techniques.

Y!W: I can only assume that Honeyboy Edwards’ appearance on those two songs was his last time on record.

TPM: I’m quite sure they were. Y!W: Was he asked to record those specifically, or did you just say, “What do you feel like singing today?” TPM: He just does what he wants. That’s the way blues works. There is no planning, he just sat down and started belting out the material. He also played a couple of things I hadn’t heard before, a song by Robert Lockwood called “Little Boy Blue.” It’s neat how it works with them though, you just have to feel it and not think about it.

Y!W: Did spending time around BB King, Hubert Sumlin and Honeyboy incite you to pursue the blues influence in future recordings a little more actively?

TPM: Absolutely, it’s really an honor to have crossed paths with all of them. It’s changed my perspective. We spent a couple of months with those guys, they rode on the bus with us, so we had a lot of time to talk. They have an amazing repertoire of stories. It’s such an amazing period that they came from, a lot of hardship and poverty, hoboing around and basically trying not to get killed. Also the reasons for music were quite a bit different back then. They used music to survive and keep them off of the plantations. It’s a very different set of motivations than modern pop music.

Y!W: A lot of the Monsters’ peers are on nostalgia tours playing the classic albums from front to back. Has such a thought crossed your mind when Sister Sweetly turns 20?

TPM: Yeah, it has. We’re contemplating doing something this summer with a couple of our peers that you might know.

Big Head Todd & the Monsters will perform at the Carolina Theatre on Friday.