An unlikely hero picks up the torch a century after the birth of the music's greatest legend.
When Todd Park Mohr's manager suggested that he record an album in tribute to the 100th birthday of legendary bluesman Robert Johnson, his first reaction was understandably negative. Mohr, aka Big Head Todd, is best known for crooning such pop songs as "Bittersweet" with his Colorado band Big Head Todd and the Monsters.
"I resisted the idea kicking and screaming," he said. "I know a lot of guys out there live and breathe Robert Johnson, and I wasn't that familiar with his music. I didn't know if I had a lot to offer."
But less than a year later, Mohr has not only immersed himself in Johnson's music to create a proper recording for the man's centennial, he's touring with legends such as Howlin' Wolf guitarist Hubert Sumlin and 95-year-old Honeyboy Edwards (who knew Johnson personally) under the name of the Big Head Blues Club. The group -- which includes Mohr's cohorts from the Monsters plus an assortment of new and old blues hounds -- will play Sunday at Orchestra Hall, its penultimate gig on a 21-city all-blues tour.
The title of the concert, "Blues at the Crossroads," is doubly suggestive. It invokes the legend that, one midnight at a crossroads in Mississippi, Johnson made a deal with the devil, who tuned his guitar and gave him special blues powers in exchange for his soul. One of Johnson's best-known songs, "Cross Roads Blues" (later covered by Eric Clapton's Cream), helps to fortify this outsized tale in people's minds.
But in a more sober vein, blues music really is at a crossroads, with only a few of the seminal Delta musicians who migrated north to play and record the blues, such as Edwards and pianist Pinetop Perkins, still alive today. Most of the titans who came to prominence in the blues revival of the 1960s and '70s are gone. And while there are pockets of stellar blues musicians from succeeding generations who keep the flame alive, its potency has diminished on the music scene.
"I think there is something of a regeneration happening to blues music, with the White Stripes and the Black Keys and others drawing heavily from the Delta blues," Mohr said. "I know I can feel a need and a readiness out there for the emotional part of blues music to be current again."
Forefathers and sons
"The blues? I don't care what happens, the blues is gonna be here," said Sumlin, 79, with a mischievous laugh. "Everything else is gonna die before the blues."
Hearing Sumlin play -- be it on old Howlin' Wolf recordings, his performances last year on a Jimi Hendrix tribute tour, or with the Big Head Blues Club -- it's tempting to believe him. And when Mohr reports that 95-year-old Honeyboy Edwards is a fixture on the tour bus, and that Sumlin constantly regales him with stories from the road and has "been like a father to me," that passing of the baton seems a bit more secure.
Sure, Sumlin is engaging in howler-caliber hype when he insists that "these Big Head Todd and his Monsters can play Robert Johnson as good as Robert Johnson hisself." But when Mohr opens the gigs with a heartfelt acoustic rendition of "Love in Vain" or "Stones in My Passway" on dobro or guitar and vocal, it's apparent he's following the tradition while being true to himself and ever-conscious of the danger of becoming a charlatan.
The same can be said of the other three members of Big Head Todd and the Monsters. Ditto drummer Cedric Burnside, grandson of the late blues singer R.L. Burnside and the 2010 Blues Music Awards drummer of the year, who teams with slide guitarist Lightnin' Malcolm on the record and the current tour. That's Malcolm stinging his slide behind Honeyboy Edwards, or on a solo rendition of a Son House tune.
Without question, something precious will be lost with the passing of Edwards, Perkins, Sumlin and others. But it has always been that way. Meanwhile, something precious is also being savored, and retained.
"I told my producer, Clive Goldsmith, that I've been waiting 30 years to make this record," said Mohr, who had a hit single when he and the Monsters were joined by John Lee Hooker for a cover of Hooker's classic blues "Boom Boom," and who included the blues standard "Smokestack Lightning" on their last album in 2010. "I am delighted to be in this period of rediscovery and enlightenment. The music I make [from now on] will always be affected by this.
"My sense of this is the part of the blues that will always be renewed is the emotional part, as opposed to who is the fastest player or best head-cutter on guitar. It will grow and it will change unpredictably. But it will always lean back on the past masters."