Big Head Todd & The Monsters
Thu, January 25
Doors: 6:30 pm
Big Head Todd & The Monsters
Big Head Todd and the Monsters are not that big on anniversaries, so there won’t be any big hoopla over the fact that the band is officially crossing the three-decade mark this year. Thirty years would seem like something to commemorate, especially with the same core lineup, an achievement few other name-brand bands can boast of. Yet right now they’re less about celebrating stability than volatility, in the form of their eleventh studio album, New World Arisin’, which makes good on its forward-facing title with what might be the brashest rock and roll of their career. The old world can’t rest on any laurels, and neither will they.
“We’re in a real exciting part of our career right now,” says co-founder Todd Park Mohr. “We’re a viable band with a great audience and we’re able to work at a very high level. It’s a career that’s getting more and more interesting, rather than less, which is remarkable,” he says, chuckling at the unlikelihood of anyone being this cheerfully all-in, this far in. “I mean, 30 years into it, I really feel like: Wow, this is getting fun. I’m learning more about music and about my instrument, and it’s just really engaging in every way. We also dovetail well with the times, I think; I feel like we have something to say.”
That desire to communicate and connect is very much reflected in a new album that explores a variety of subgenres, from the funky (“Trip”) to the unexpectedly punky (“Detonator”), with stops along the way for raging country-rock (“Damaged One”), expansive storytelling in the Van Morrison/early Springsteen mode (“Wipeout Turn”), a Jimi Hendrix cover (“Room Full of Mirrors”), and, in the title track, “New World Arisin’,” a Charley Patton-inspired tune that ended up having what Mohr describes as “a heavy metal/gospel feel.”
He doesn’t feel these musical zigzags will give fans musical whiplash. “The fact is, most people, like myself, listen to multiple genres of music, so I don’t think people have a problem with variety. I love it.”
But if there’s a dominant musical motif to New World Arisin’, it’s “straight-up rock-pop,” says Mohr. That contemporary approach might come as a slight surprise to hardcore fans that saw the Monsters take a seriously rootsy turn or two in the last 10 years. The band embarked on a side project, dubbed Big Head Blues Club, that saw them paying homage to Robert Johnson and bringing in venerable guest collaborators like Charlie Musselwhite and the late B.B. King. The heavy blues influence that dominated their alter-ego band carried over some into the last actual Big Head Todd and the Monsters album, 2014’s Black Beehive. That element isn’t altogether missing in New World Arisin’; you’ll certainly hear it recur in “Long Coal Train.” But this time the blues take a definite back seat to the unapologetically mainstream instincts that had Big Head Todd going platinum in the mid-’90s with the album Sister Sweetly, which spawned the rock radio hits “Broken Hearted Savior,” “Bittersweet,” and “Circle.”
“Commercial success is still a goal for me and for our band,” Mohr says, “as far as the sense of communicating to, or striking a chord with a large number of people. We feel like we have something to say and something to offer the culture.” Plus, a true confession: “I’m interested in the pop song! And I think ‘Damaged One,’ for one, is a classic pop song. Our label would have killed for that song, back then,” in the wake of those mainstream radio hits that established the band. “They begged me to write it! So there’s a lot of irony in our coming back to that.”
The history of the group actually stretches farther back from the 1987 point at which they took their name. The core members came together at such an early age that it’s hard to know exactly how many candles to put on their collective cake. “It’s murky,” Mohr says, “because I’ve been playing with Brian (Nevin, their drummer) since junior high school, so the two of us go back to 1982. Brian and I played a talent show with Rob (Squires, the bass player) in 1983, and then we continued to plug at it, at a kids’ pace,” he laughs. They began playing original music in earnest in a nascent Colorado music scene that then consisted almost entirely of cover bands. A debut album, Another Mayberry, arrived in 1989, though it would be another four years before Sister Sweetly made them a national phenomenon. The only personnel change in these three decades has been the addition of a fourth member, putative “new guy” Jeremy Lawton, in 2004.
While they enjoy a robust fan base around the country, their success is outsized in Colorado, where they’re practically the unofficial state band. That’s evident in their ability to sell out Red Rocks, the most revered amphitheater in the nation, where they’ve headlined 19 times. It also comes into play when the band gets asked to be a part of commemorative moments: Mohr recently sang the national anthem at a Rockies game, and the entire band took part in the parade through Denver after the Broncos took the Super Bowl.
Their honors extend beyond their home state and even home country… into space. In 2005, they released the single “Blue Sky,” a tribute to the space program, written at the behest of crew members taking to the heavens aboard the space shuttle Discovery; it was performed years later as a live wake-up call to the astronauts on the shuttle. The song had enough appeal back on earth, too, that it was picked up by the Hillary Clinton campaign in 2008 and used to introduce her keynote speech to the Democratic convention.
That campaign usage didn’t come about as a result of any desire on Mohr’s part to take the band in a political direction. He’s not so interested in getting Big Head Todd and the Monsters caught up in that particular fray as looking at the smaller and bigger pictures, wanting to keep the material topical in some far deeper fashion.
“Our audience is America, and I’m guessing it breaks down to the same percentages the country itself has,” he says. “We’ve never gotten in the business of polarizing people politically. But at the same time, as artists, it’s our job to observe and to hopefully find some insight. I’ve always been interested in the human condition more than politics. Politics are a part of it, but I always look at conflict as personal before it’s political. And I would consider conflict my dominant lyrical theme now— how people are trapped in it, and how conflict relates to intimacy and pleasure.” A Big Head Todd show, in any case, is a place where those conflicts might resolve, or dissolve. “In talking about our apolitical-ness, I think unity is an important thing,” Mohr says. “Being a human being, you have a lot in common with other human beings, and why not maximize those things? Music has an incredible capacity to convey other cultures and times, and to create a lot of empathy and togetherness. There’s harmony in it, and it implies oneness — the root.”
There’s an economy to the songs on the new album, most of which clock in around four minutes, and sometimes even closer to three. You’d think this would make Big Head Todd and the Monsters the farthest thing from a jam band. Yet they have a fervent following among that subset of rock fans, lack of noodling notwithstanding. Maybe it’s because of the changing nature of their set lists, since the Monsters are known to take requests, both in person and online.
“Our focus has always been on serving the song,” Mohr says. “We haven’t historically been that jammy. Which isn’t to say that we don’t have an occasional six-minute number -- we do. But having said that, I have a great respect for that audience, which I think is just a music-loving audience. You know, one year I got invited to the Jammies at Carnegie Hall, and I got in a discussion with somebody: ‘Well, how do you define a jam band?’ And he told me, ‘A jam band doesn’t repeat a song for three shows in a row.’ That was the only way that he would define it. I could almost follow that rule, except there are probably four songs I have to play every night. So I guess those four songs are what’s keeping us from ever being a jam band,” he laughs.
What’s clear is that Big Head Todd is one multi-headed rock monster, easily traversing the most accessible hooks and the heaviest grooves. It’s not surprising that they would appeal to any audience or sub-audience that values durability over flavors of the moment. But Mohr has to laugh when he thinks about how little the possibility of long-term perseverance was on the members’ minds 30 years ago.
“When you form, I think your goal is to make it through the party on Saturday night,” he points out. “In art, longevity isn’t the goal. It’s a happy accident if it happens, and I think ours was one of those convenient accidents that led to a happy marriage. But we happen to get along really well and love being with each other and playing music for a living.” Simple as it may sound, that’s a profound recipe for endurance in both the old world and the new.●
On Blues & Ballads (A Folksinger’s Songbook) Vol. I & II, Luther Dickinson finds his way forward by retracing his steps. This ambitious double album collects twenty-one tunes from throughout his life and career—songs he wrote with his rock & roll band the North Mississippi Allstars, songs he learned from friends and family, songs passed down to him by his heroes and mentors, songs that have lived in the American subconscious for decades now—and pares them down to their irreducible elements. Voice, guitar, drums. Here and there some blues fife or Beale Street piano.
The performances on the record itself are some of his most excitable and energetic, with the bounce and rumble of early blues and rock; the arrangements transcribed in the illustrated songbook (which accompanies the vinyl edition of the album) reveal the intricate and imaginative rhythms and melodies that underpin all of Luther’s compositions. “The idea,” he says, “was to re-record everything very stripped down—very acoustic and honest and folky—to accompany the songbook.” As the subtitle suggests, this is only the beginning of what promises to be a multi-volume undertaking.
It started, as so many good things do, with Mavis Staples.
The two have been friends and occasional musical partners for twenty years: She has sung with his rock-and-roll band the North Mississippi Allstars, and he accompanied her on the soundtrack to Take Me to the River, the 2014 documentary about soul music in the South. When Mavis mentioned that she wanted to record the Allstars tune “Hear the Hills,” Luther knew he had to make it happen. On the day of the session, however, Mavis changed her mind and asked to record another song, “Ain’t No Grave,” from the Allstars’ 2011 album Keys to the Kingdom.
It’s a song that means the world to Luther. He wrote it shortly after the death of his father, the producer/singer/songwriter/all-around badass Jim Dickinson. Most people know him as a session musician who played on hits by the Stones and Dylan or as a producer who helmed seminal albums by Big Star and the Replacements. He taught Luther everything he knows: how to play guitar, how to lead a band, how to keep a songwriter’s notebook.
For Mavis, “Ain’t No Grave” is the kind of song her own father—the great Pops Staples—might have taught her and her sisters back in the 1950s and ‘60s, when the Staple Singers were the biggest name in gospel. Arranged, performed, and recorded on the fly, their version of the tune is haunting. The tempo is slow but determined, as though midway through a long, arduous journey. Sharde Thomas taps out a sympathetic rhythm on her drums while Luther lays down a wiry blues riff and sings about living up to his father’s example: “When the day comes, death comes back my way,” they sing together, “I would hope to be as brave as he was on Judgment Day.”
Mavis sings behind him, her voice trailing his, her presence a reassuring hand on Luther’s shoulder. Fatigue colors their voices, evoking the inescapable gravity of death: We are all pulled toward the grave, but it’s what we do along the way that matters. At the heart of the song is a kernel of hard-won hope, as though simply making music is consolation enough.
That memorable session sent Luther down the road toward Blues & Ballads, which he describes as a community project: “This is the most casual record I ever made. I’d record one or two songs at a time, very effortlessly and unstrategically. Then I started recording songs with different groups of friends, wherever I happened to be.” Fortunately, he happened to be in some of the best and most historic rooms in the world, including Sun Studio and Willie Mitchell’s Royal Studios in Memphis. Equally fortunately, he has some incredibly talented friends: Jason Isbell, J.J. Grey, Alvin Youngblood Hart, Jimbo Mathus, Lillie Mae Rasche, and Charles Hodges, a keyboard player of the legendary Hi Records rhythm section that backed Al Green.
In addition to these cameos, Blues & Ballads emphasizes first and foremost Luther’s chemistry with his solo band, Amy LaVere on bass and Sharde Thomas on drums, fife, even accordion. Sharde in particular plays a prominent roll on these songs, not just providing a steady backbeat but singing backup and lead. It’s her voice that introduces the album on opener “Hurry Up Sunrise,” which is fitting since the song was written by her grandfather, the renowned blues fife legend Otha Turner. Their voices blend gracefully on the verses, lending the tune a spry bounce and a wide-eyed tone. Luther is so moved by the performance—recorded in one take—that he punctuates it with an excited, “I love you, girl!”
He’s been singing the song for most of his life, first learning it on Otha’s front porch. “Back in the day when I was a teenager, I would sit on his porch with our friends, all guys in the hill country blues scene, and we would all play guitar. We’d try to get Otha fired up enough that he would start singing. If he started singing, we knew were getting somewhere.” That porch was where he met Sharde, back when she was just 9 years old but already something of a fife prodigy. As a teenager, she started playing with the Allstars. “I look at him as an older brother,” she says. “When we’re onstage together, magic seems to happen. I know Otha’s smiling down on me and Luther’s father’s smiling down on him.”
Blues & Ballads has a retrospective flavor, but it’s not a greatest hits. Rather, it’s a means of translating these songs to a new moment, of letting them breathe and take new shapes. In that regard, it’s fitting that the vinyl edition includes that songbook. “I love all sorts,” says Luther, an avid collector of “hymnals, children’s songs, country music, whatever. And I’ve always wanted to have my own.” When he was growing up in rural Mississippi, these songbooks formed the bedrock of his musical education. “My grandmother was the church pianist, and I remember looking at the hymnals and trying to figure out the music. I would read the words and listen to the people singing along. Growing up pre-internet, I would go to the library and memorize every music book in the Hernando Public Library.”
Around this same time, Luther learned to keep copious notebooks full of stray thoughts, fragments of lyrics, doodles and drawings, anything that came to his mind. It’s an approach his father insisted was essential not just to the songwriter, but to anyone who creates any kind of art. Luther continues the practice today, archiving his old notebooks—all emblazoned with stickers and filled with his chicken scratch penmanship—the same way he collects songbooks.
“My whole life my dad really helped teach me how to craft songs. I’d bring in these rough songs and we’d demo them up and record them. He would always go through them and make sure the syllable count added up and the rhymes were traditional. He taught me the importance of getting the most out of every word, making every word as strong as it could be. Now that he’s gone, I still work on songs using what he taught me. We’re still working together, because he taught me how to do it. The collaboration lives on.”
Every song on Blues & Ballads was born in those songbooks and notebooks, a fact that lends the double album the feel of a memoir. This is the sound of a vital artist taking stock of his life in music and acknowledging his debt to his heroes: his grandmother, his father, Otha Turner, Mavis Staples, and so many others. “When you put all these songs together, they tell my story and my family’s story.”
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