Words by: Cal Roach | Images by: Lewis Cooper
Big Head Todd and the Monsters :: 01.30.09 :: The Rave :: Milwaukee, WI
Fourteen years ago, I came to The Rave for the first time to see a show. It was my freshman year at Marquette, and all I knew about Colorado's Big Head Todd and the Monsters was that this hippie kid from my dorm told me that this big long-haired deeoood could really play guitar. The only song I even recognized was a cover of Zep's "Tangerine," which was all my classic rock heart needed to win me over, but this show rocked as hard as anything I'd seen before. When they were done and the headliners began to set up, all I could think was, "There's no way this Dave Matthews guy can possibly top that." Todd may have chopped off the hair, but he really hasn't lost a step in the past two decades.
Todd Park Mohr's charisma is a major factor in the band's success, and opener "Please Don't Tell Her" was like small talk easing us into a pleasant conversation. "Helpless" signified that small talk was over. It's got a heavy crunch but it chugs with blues power, and Mohr took an early blistering solo, one of his almost-arrhythmic, pure-soul runs, like an electric Willie Nelson. "Come On" took a Clapton-esque, stadium-sized riff and turned it into concise pop. Then, out came the horns. Trumpet player Joan Jones (ex-Sun 60) opened the show with a (mostly) solo acoustic guitar set, and she now added some seasoning to "Ever Since Ya Pulled Me Under" from the band's 2007 effort All The Love You Need, which was distributed for free to thousands of fans and is still available for free download at BHT's website. The song received a slick, melancholy blues treatment; Mohr was reminiscent of Gary Moore in his heyday, achingly melodic but edgy.
John Lee Hooker's "Boom Boom" picked up the pace, as Mohr began to delve deeply into his back catalog. The band is culling its setlists partially from requests posted in its online forum, and Mohr claimed that every request would be fulfilled tonight. "The Moose Song" was an early highlight, a strong group effort as well as a showcase for the axeman. The Monsters (Brian Nevin on drums, Rob Squires on bass and Jeremy Lawton on keys) get "and the" treatment not for lack of talent, but for the most part, they aren't going to provide the memories when you're thinking about the show afterwards. As the sole guitarist and lead singer, Big Head Todd is the rare artist who can slide from rhythm to lead guitar effortlessly, while never letting his playing get in the way of his soulful voice. And he's having so much fun up there, people!
The band buried its biggest hits in the middle of the set, which makes no difference to the average BHT fan. You might still hear "Bittersweet" on the airwaves, and while he's probably played it at every show for fifteen years, Mohr managed to convey the conflicted emotion as if he'd just put it into words. It came off like a reflection on a long career in music more than a first big hit, but the crowd swooned nonetheless. "Resignation Superman" might have been upheld as a grunge anthem if grunge weren't so anti-guitar solo, and "Circle," with that riff that gives The Black Crowes' "Twice As Hard" a run for its money, swept everybody up in its roar. But it was "Broken Hearted Savior" that brought 1995 back to me; I remembered how it jolted me out of the feeling that punk rock was the only relevant music being made with an electric guitar. It's a song that truly belongs amongst the icons of the '90s, but instead of being an encore on some desperate reunion tour, it's one thrilling piece of a still-vibrant band's repertoire.
|Big Head Todd and the Monsters|
Mohr's tales of love lost, love almost lost and love on the horizon are what have gotten him to where he is just as surely as his guitar, and they're still there in his new material, from the mellow, aching sweetness of "All The Love You Need" to the bitter "Cashbox," one of the best heavy rockers Mohr has ever unleashed. It takes balls for a veteran to save the new stuff for last, but an anthem like "Blue Sky" (borrowed by Hillary Clinton as a campaign song) already stands as classic BHT, and set-closer "Her Own Kinda Woman" gave Mohr yet another chance to wow us with a fantastic solo. The only problem with this band's dynamic is that the short drum solo and the token organ jam only spotlight how submissive the Monsters actually are. A stronger keyboard player could have really taken the James Brown medley higher in the encore; flashier bass or more nuanced drumming might allow for some more interesting jams, but that's not really what this band is about. They're the perfect foil for their fearless leader, tight and disciplined, faithful to the songs. They just happened to hitch themselves to a star bright enough to carry a whole band.
Big Head Todd and the Monsters are on tour now; dates available here.
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