Words by: L. Paul Mann | Images by: Dave Vann & L. Paul Mann
Blues at the Crossroads: The Robert Johnson Centennial Concerts :: 01.31.11 :: UCSB's Campbell Hall :: Santa Barbara, CA
According to the most infamous legend in American Delta Blues music, Robert Johnson met the devil at the “Crossroads” of Highways 49 and 6 at Dockney Plantation, just outside of Clarksdale, Mississippi. In that fateful, Faustian meeting, the young musician agreed to exchange his soul for the skills to be a master of the blues. The devil reportedly tuned Johnson’s guitar, sealing the deal. Robert Johnson was one of the first musicians in the black blues genre to make popular recording in 1936-37. His music became the foundation for many of the most successful names in early rock history. Eric Clapton has referred to Johnson as “the most important blues singer that ever lived.” Clapton’s recording of “Crossroads” with the super group Cream was one of the band's biggest hits, the tune a reworking of Johnson's tune “Crossroad Blues.” Keith Richards interpreted Johnson's influence on later generations of blues greats like Muddy Waters as a natural progression, which the Stones also took advantage of. “Robert Johnson was like an orchestra all by himself. Some of his best stuff is almost Bach-like in construction,” Richards writes is his new book Life. The Stones recorded their own versions of at least two Johnson songs, including “Love in Vain” and “Stop Breaking Down”. Led Zeppelin also recorded versions of some Johnson songs. Johnson died in 1938 when he was only 27-years-old, and another murky legend sprang up around his death. Allegedly, a jealous husband slipped him a strychnine laced bottle of whiskey as revenge for gallivanting with the man's wife. Whatever the cause, it is eerily interesting that so many troubled rock legends also died at the age of 27, including Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, Jim Morrison and Kurt Cobain. If the legend of the Crossroads is true, there must be a hell of a good house band in Hades.
|Todd Mohr Park by L. Paul Mann|
Amidst this backdrop, three generations of blues musicians met to celebrate the music of Johnson as part of the UCSB Arts and Lectures Series at Campbell Hall. Todd Park Mohr, lead singer and guitarist for the band Big Head Todd and the Monsters, began the show with an acoustic rendition of four classic blues staples. He started with a gritty a cappella version of “John The Revelator.” He also sang two Johnson songs, “Stones in My Passway” and “Love in Vain.”
The rest of the Monsters then took the stage for a rowdy, rocking set of blues classics. Joined by younger blues prodigies Cedric Burnside and Lightin’ Malcolm, the band tore through some blues drenched jams, for nearly an hour. Then the evening turned into a truly historic night of jam blues legends. First the band was joined by David Honeyboy Edwards, a compatriot of Robert Johnson, who was actually with the legendary musician the night he drank the suspect bottle of whiskey. The 95-year-old musician sang with a strong gritty Delta blues voice and performed fanciful picking on his guitar in perfect synch with the wall of sound provided by the band behind him. He kicked off his set with the classic “Catfish Blues.” After several more songs, Hubert Sumlin joined the group. The 79-year-old ex-Howlin Wolf guitarist brought yet another generation of blues expertise to the mix. Sumlin is often credited as an early mentor for a young Jimi Hendrix. Sumlin and Edwards began by trading licks on a sultry version of “Sweet Home Chicago.” A medley of Howlin Wolf classics followed, including “Smokestack Lightning,” “Wang Dang Doodle” and “Killing Floor.” After a standing ovation from the capacity crowd, all the musicians returned for a raucous encore of “Dust My Broom,” made famous by Elmore James.
|Big Head Todd and the Monsters by L. Paul Mann|
There are no less than three markers in three different locations claiming to be the final resting place of Robert Johnson. But no matter where his body and soul may have ended up, his music will live forever in the evolution of American blues.
Continue reading for Dave Vann’s pics of this tour’s visit to San Francisco...