Big Head Todd and the Monsters stronger than ever
Todd Park Mohr, frontman of Big Head Todd and the Monsters was never a stranger to the blues. That influence has run through the group's music since its first album, 1989's "Another Mayberry."
But in recent years, Mohr's relationship with the blues has changed dramatically — so much so that he isn't merely influenced by the genre, he's a part of the blues. And Mohr, in a recent phone interview, says the newest Big Head Todd and the Monsters studio album, "Black Beehive," is directly influenced by that deepening knowledge and understanding of blues.
The change can be traced back to a 2011 album, "100 Years of Robert Johnson," on which Big Head Todd and the Monsters collaborated with blues legends David "Honeyboy" Edwards and Huburt Sumlin (long-time guitarist for Howlin' Wolf) — under the billing of the Big Head Blues Club — to create fresh interpretations of songs by Delta blues pioneer Robert Johnson.
Edwards and Sumlin also joined Big Head Todd and the Monsters on a tour in support of the album. Spending time with the two bluesmen, who have both since passed away, remains a treasured memory for Mohr.
"It was enormously important to me musically, personally and psychologically. They ended up being father figures to me," Mohr says. "It was really kind of remarkable. Honeyboy was 95 at the time and Hubert was 80. So they had an awful lot to share. They were pretty lonely guys, kind of struggling with health and, at their age, to still be working for a living is a pretty serious commitment. I had opportunities to stay up all night and listen to them tell stories. Like many elderly people, they just love recalling the past and being able to share it with younger people. It was a direct connect to American history in a personal and visceral way — connecting personally with the blues and the pains of the blues and the beginnings of so much of what characterizes America through their experience."
On a musical level, the Big Head Blues Club project introduced Mohr to an earlier era of blues that he had never explored and opened the door to new approaches to songwriting that reshaped the sound of Big Head Todd and the Monsters on "Black Beehive."
"It forced me to woodshed Robert Johnson's material, which I hadn't done before. But it also opened me to a whole different way of looking at music," Mohr said. "One of the big things for me that had great appeal was the lack of the commercial structures of traditional pop songwriting. That was really a liberating thing for me because I kind of spent my career in the shadows of 'Sister Sweetly,' and I was kind of trying to duplicate that success as a writer. It just kind of felt hollow to me after a while."
"Sister Sweetly" was the third Big Head Todd and The Monsters album — and first major label effort. Released in 1993, it produced hit singles in "Broken Hearted Savior" and "Bittersweet," and briefly gave Mohr and his original bandmates, bassist Rob Squires and drummer Brian Nevin, a taste of the rock-star life.
Mohr's new approach to songwriting shows in the music. Where preceding Big Head Todd and The Monsters albums had a rock sound that seemed as informed by a soul influence, the new album has a deeper, earthier blues accent. Here, songs like "Seven State Lines," "We Won't Go Back," "Hey Delilah" and "Everything About You" are powered by strong rhythmic grooves and rumbling bass lines that ride below some tangy guitar work and gritty vocal melodies.
Those hard-hitting songs are balanced by several ballads — "Travelin' Light," "I Get Smooth" and the title track — with a folk-blues accent that echoes the early Delta blues. The new sound works well, and "Black Beehive" is one of the group's best albums.
Big Head Todd and the Monsters and G. Love & Special Sauce will share a bill at 7 p.m. Sunday, July 26, at the Britt Pavilion, 350 First St., Jacksonville. G. Love also released a new album in 2014, titled "Sugar."
Alt-country guitar and vocal duo The Brothers Reed will perform at 6 p.m. in the Britt Performance Garden.
Tickets cost $54 for reserved seats, $44 for standing room only, $39 for lawn seating, and $29 for ages 12 and younger. Tickets can be purchased online at brittfest.org, at the box office, 216 W. Main St., Medford, or by calling 800-882-7488. No outside alcohol will be allowed at this performance.