Hitting The Trunk Road | A Bittersweet Big Head Todd

Words By: David Schultz


A staple on the original H.O.R.D.E. tours, Big Head Todd & The Monsters are one of the true grandfathers (well, maybe really cool uncles) of the modern day jam scene. Unlike many of the bands that toured the States with them in the mid-'90s, Todd Park Mohr and company still churn out albums and remain a constant presence on the road. Integral to their longevity is the loyal audience they’ve cultivated and retained as the years have passed. While it’s highly unlikely that their audience will grow, it’s similarly unlikely that it will shrink. As unglamorous as that might sound, dependable crowds in every major city is a recipe for quite a productive career. However, fan bases that trace their origins to a band’s fledgling days have their drawbacks as what’s a band to do when their fans yearn for art they’ve long outgrown.

For many, the mention of Big Head Todd & The Monsters brings to mind Midnight Radio, their criminally underrated 1990 classic, “Bittersweet,” their most identifiable song, and “Broken Hearted Savior,” which received significant mainstream airplay upon its 1993 release. Remaining steadily productive as both a recording and touring band, their endeavors tend to go largely unnoticed outside of those that make it a point to keep abreast of BHT’s doings. 100 Years of Robert Johnson, their last release, saw the band team up with greats like Hubert Sumlin, B.B. King and Cedric Burnside to honor the King of the Delta Blues and Black Beehive, released on February 4, marks another satisfying chapter in their remarkably solid catalog.

With new material and a renewed dedication to the classic blues, how do they stay true to their current selves when people come to the shows to relive the glory years of another era? For bands like Big Head Todd and especially Mohr himself, it seems to be an omnipresent issue. When I interviewed Mohr in 2008, I sensed that while he was more than accommodating when it came to talking about the past, he had no desire to live in it, regardless of the profits (and job security) to be reaped. Predictably, the present held more interest for him.

Knowing that, it was a pleasant surprise when BHT spent healthy portions of their 2012 touring schedule playing Midnight Radio in its entirety. In hindsight, those shows may have been a fond farewell to a loyal friend as many of Midnight Radio’s songs, longtime staples of Big Head’s live repertoire, have disappeared from their set lists over the last couple years. At their most recent New York City appearance, at the Brooklyn Bowl in Williamsburg, BHT offered up two sets that devoted very little time to reliving past glories. With the exception of rote recitations of “Bittersweet” and “Broken Hearted Savior” to open the second set, the band only once reached back to their H.O.R.D.E. days with a relatively inspired “Resignation Superman.”

The most nonproductive thing a purported fan can do is frustrate an artist’s ability to grow. Not only is it shortsighted, it’s incredibly selfish. Nonetheless, when it comes to Big Head Todd, Mohr’s rich and intricate guitar work fails to brighten the pall cast upon a show significantly lacking in classic material. While there has to be some line drawn between the past and present, BHT may have pulled it too far in one direction. For this and many other shows on this tour, Hazel Miller, who has lent her powerful and soulful voice to a number of early Monsters tracks, is part of the band. As her mere presence tips the cap towards BHT’s older material, the Brooklyn Bowl felt empty by its absence. It also felt a little shy of enough BHT as they devoted an inordinate amount of time to featuring Ronnie Baker Brooks, a talented guitarist in his own right but not the one people came to see.

Of course, playing fresher material that is closer to his current musical mindset, Mohr looked happier on stage than I can recall seeing him in years.


WITH THE 50th ANNIVERSARY of The Beatles’ appearance on the Ed Sullivan being commemorated in a seemingly endless variety of ways, the early era of Beatlemania and British R&B live on through The Above. On stage at The Bell House, where they opened The Detroit Cobras Brooklyn show, they nailed down the vintage Beatles sound and somewhat unintentionally, their mannerisms. Apocryphal as it may be to say, The Above sound like a bit like the Fab Four, transported from Hamburg to Williamsburg with no knowledge of the half-century of music they inspired. Although, when you hit all the right notes in that fashion, looking and sounding like The Rutles is practically unavoidable.

IT MAY FEEL LIKE eons ago but it’s only been a decade or so since Robert Randolph was considered the boy genius that could carry rock and roll into the future. As he played one of the numerous New York shows surrounding New Jersey’s Super Bowl, Randolph paid it forward by bringing out 10-year-old guitar prodigy Brandon Niederauer. Playing an electric guitar that seemed as big as him, Niederauer kept up with the Hendrix of the pedal steel as they blazed through a medley centered on the Bo Diddley beat and a lengthy run through “Voodoo Chile.” The kid is insanely good, not “isn’t that cute, the child knows a few chords” good but “holy crap, that might be the future” good.

THOSE TAKING Bob Dylan and the Red Hot Chili Peppers to task for purportedly compromising their integrity when it comes to their contributions to Super Bowl Sunday should ask themselves when they last spent money on one of their albums or shows. Still, that Dylan commercial felt wrong and creepy. What did we do to deserve a lobotomized Dylan proclaiming “nothing’s more American than America” and dismissing American beer as substandard? Perhaps we can all agree that never happened.

[Published on: 2/6/14]

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