Posts Tagged ‘Big Head Todd & the Monsters’

Saturday Single No. 228

Saturday, March 5th, 2011

On a Sunday sometime just after Thanksgiving, I was paging through that day’s edition of the Minneapolis Star Tribune as a football game played itself out on the television. When I got to the arts section, I was moving pretty quickly, scanning and turning pages in rhythmic progress, when I stopped.

What was it on that last page? What had I seen?

I turned back, and there, in an ad near the bottom right corner of the right-hand page, was the smiling face of Robert Johnson, the image known as the studio portrait. The ad was for a concert some months away at Minneapolis’ Orchestra Hall, a gathering celebrating the centennial of the influential bluesman’s birth in 1911. (He was born in Hazlehurst, Mississippi, most likely on May 8.) Intrigued, I looked closer.

Leading off the list of performers was Big Head Todd & the Monsters. I blinked, not ever having thought of that band as one steeped in blues, and then I read on: Cedric Burnside, Lightnin’ Malcolm, David “Honeyboy” Edwards and Hubert Sumlin.

I didn’t – and still don’t – know much about either Cedric Burnside or Lightnin’ Malcolm. The only information All-Music Guide has about Malcolm is that he’s a guitar player who’s released two albums, one in 2005, the other this year. And I assumed – correctly, as it happens – that Cedric Burnside was related to R.L. Burnside, a north Mississippi blues guitarist who passed on in 2005. It turns out that Cedric is his grandson and has released a couple of albums in the past ten years working as a duo with Malcolm.

I didn’t go dig at that information as soon as I saw the ad. That came later. Because as soon as I saw the names David “Honeyboy” Edwards and Hubert Sumlin, I stopped breathing for just a moment. Sumlin was the long-time guitarist for Howlin’ Wolf, complementing the Wolf’s force-of-nature vocals with sometimes stinging and sometimes supple leads and backing.

As for Honeyboy Edwards, who’s now ninety-five, well, he’s played blues for longer than most of us have been alive. His recorded catalog is slender, but it includes a 2008 album – Last of the Great Mississippi Delta Bluesmen: Live In Dallas – that won a Grammy for best traditional blues album. But what made my breath catch as I saw the ad was the knowledge that Edwards traveled and played with Robert Johnson in 1930s Mississippi.

I got up and took the ad into the living room, where the Texas Gal was working on a quilt. I showed it to her. She read it and said something like “It looks like a good one, but, it’s on a Sunday night, and that makes it a long night getting home, what with work and school on Monday. We could look at the budget, but . . .”

And she was right. It was impractical. I nodded, looked once more at the ad, then folded up the paper and went back to the study, where I most likely picked up the metro news section. And I didn’t think any more about the concert.

Until Christmas Day. That’s when I opened a shoe-box size gift from my sister and her family and found inside an envelope from Orchestra Hall containing two tickets to “Blues at the Crossroads,” the very same concert about which I’d asked the Texas Gal a few weeks earlier.

It turns out that a few weeks before I did, my sister had seen an ad for the show, and – to make sure there was no gift duplication and that we kept the date of the concert open – she’d clued in the Texas Gal on Thanksgiving Day that I’d find the tickets under the tree Christmas morning.

Looking at the tickets, I stammered my thanks, and then tucked them safely away. At home that evening, the Texas Gal told me that when I’d shown her the ad for the concert, she’d had a difficult time. “I wanted to discourage you without being too over the top,” she said. “I already knew you were going to get the tickets and that I was going to take Monday off so we don’t have to worry about work and school that day.”

I was impressed. And more than pleased. And tomorrow evening, we’ll be in Orchestra Hall for the musical celebration, one of a series of such concerts around the country this year. I’ll likely report on the concert come Tuesday, but in the meantime, from a performance at the Riley Center in Meridian, Mississippi, here’s a look at Big Head Blues Club featuring Big Head Todd & the Monsters and a performance of  “Come On In My Kitchen.” And it’s today’s Saturday Single.

In addition to the concert series, an album titled 100 Years of Robert Johnson has just been released; credited to the Big Head Blues Club featuring Big Head Todd & the Monsters, it features the same musicians as will be on the Orchestra Hall stage Sunday as well as B.B. King, Charlie Musselwhite and Ruthie Foster.

‘With A Blue Moon In Your Eyes . . .’

Thursday, September 2nd, 2010

I wonder how huge the eureka moment was when the producers of the television series The Sopranos came across the song “Woke Up This Morning” by the English group Alabama 3.

I can only imagine that the producers, trying to find a theme song that summed up mob boss Tony Soprano and his messy, conflicted, ordinary and brutal life, just stared at the speakers the first time they heard the track, with its odd and compelling mix of hip-hop, electronica and Americana. I’m sure those producers felt that the Alabama 3 song had just been waiting for them to discover it and provide it with a home.

And that’s what happened. For six seasons, stretching between January 1999 and June of 2007, an edit of the song led off each of the eighty-six episodes of one of television’s greatest dramas. Viewers would have been forgiven for thinking that that song was written for The Sopranos when it was actually released in 1997 on Alabama 3’s first album, Exile On Coldharbour Lane.

And viewers would also have been forgiven for thinking that Alabama 3 was an American group, when it was actually a product of England. To be honest, the band’s history is strange enough that I’m just going to turn to the account by Garth Cartwright at All-Music Guide:

“Alabama 3 was one of the oddest musical outfits to arise from late-’90s London, but also one of the most original. The band’s origins are shrouded in urban myth — the band likes to claim that the three core members met in rehab, while their Southern accents have many believing they are from the U.S. state of Alabama, although it appears vocalists Rob Spragg and Jake Black met at a London rave when Spragg heard Black singing Hank Williams’ ‘Lost Highway.’ Bonding, they set out about creating an agenda of Americana, electronica, leftist politics, and laughter. Joined by DJ Piers Marsh, the trio issued two 12” dance singles that combined their interest in gospel and country music, yet these went over the heads of the London dance scene. In Italy, where Spragg and Black began singing Howlin’ Wolf songs over Marsh mixes, the idea of the band began to take shape and back in Brixton, South London, they recruited a crew of musicians to shape their vision. This, combined with brilliantly theatrical live shows, meant the band attracted a huge South London following long before they had a record deal.”

Cartwright calls Exile On Coldharbour Lane “a groundbreaking work that effortlessly fused gospel, country, blues, and house music,” a style dubbed “chemical country.” While the British press – then caught up in what Cartwright calls its “infatuation with Britpop” – tended to ignore the group, the use of “Woke Up This Morning” in The Sopranos brought some popularity in the U.S. Unfortunately, that popularity brought legal action as well, says Cartwright, as the country group Alabama sued over the group’s name, which means that in the U.S., Alabama 3 is now known as A3.

Since its odd beginnings, Alabama 3 has continued to record and release albums, the most recent being Revolver Soul, which came out last May. I’ve not listened to much of their catalog, but the group’s approach is still novel, based on both the quotes from followers cited at the group’s website and on the tag line on the ad there for Revolver Soul: “Soul Music With A Gun Against Your Head.”

Sounds like something Tony Soprano would listen to.

A Six-Pack from the Ultimate Jukebox, No. 32
“Follow” by Richie Havens from Mixed Bag [1967]
“Back Stabbers” by the O’Jays, Philadelphia International 3517 [1972]
“Smoke On The Water” by Deep Purple, Warner Bros. 7710 [1973]
“Help Me” by Joni Mitchell, Asylum 11034 [1974]
“Bittersweet” by Big Head Todd & the Monsters from Sister Sweetly [1993]
“Woke Up This Morning” by Alabama 3, Geffen International 22302 [1997]

Television brought me another great recording a few years before I first heard “Woke Up This Morning.” One Sunday evening in May 1998, the law drama The Practice closed its season-ending episode with Richie Havens’ sublime “Follow” as the backing track. I recognized the voice but not the song, and as the last scenes played out, I went to the record stacks – the total number of records was then about 1,600 – and was stunned to find no Richie Havens. I grabbed a pen and piece of paper and jotted down “Follow” – that had to be the title of the song, I assumed – and over the next few weeks, I sought out and bought several of Havens’ albums, finally finding “Follow” on Mixed Bag at the end of July. Since then, I’ve continued to buy Havens’ albums on LP and on CD, but nothing I’ve ever heard from him – and he’s one of my favorites – is as good as “Follow.”

“They smile in your face; all the time they wanna take your place: The back-stabbers!” That warning couplet, following a lush and haunting string introduction laid on a bed of spooky percussion, brought the O’Jays to the attention of the world, or at least the portion of the world that listened to Top 40 radio in 1972.  Those who listened to R&B, however, had known the group since at least 1967, when “I’ll Be Sweeter Tomorrow (Than I Was Today)” went to No. 8 on the R&B Singles chart, the first of eight O’Jays records to reach that chart before “Back Stabbers” was released. Seven of those early R&B charting singles – and one that did not make the R&B chart – had also reached the Billboard Hot 100, but until “Back Stabbers” came along, none had pushed into the Top 40. From 1972 through 1980, however, the O’Jays saw nine singles reach the Top 40, while even more reached the R&B, Disco, Dance and related charts from 1972 into 2004. There’s a lot of good work in that catalog – I particularly like the gospel version of the Bob Dylan title song on 1991’s Emotionally Yours – but not many of the O’Jays records sound better than that first major hit: “What can I do to get on the right track? I wish they’d take some of these knives off my back!”

I’ve never been much of a Deep Purple fan, but there was no escaping “Smoke On The Water” during the summer of 1973, when it went to No. 4. And the record, with its iconic opening riff, is here in my Ultimate Jukebox for a time and place moment: Sometime during late July or early August of that summer, many of us who would spend the next school year in Denmark through St. Cloud State got together for a picnic at Minnehaha Park in Minneapolis. At one point during that evening, I was standing at the base of Minnehaha Falls – the waterfall that gives the large park its name – talking for the first time with a young woman who would turn out to be a very important part of my next nine months. Some distance away, another group of picnickers had a music source of some kind, and in that moment, those distant picnickers were listening to “Smoke On The Water.” Ever since, that opening riff puts me back at the base of Minnehaha Falls during the first tentative moments of a friendship that for a while became something else.

I wrote a while back that I thought that “Help Me” was Joni Mitchell’s best work, noting that I found much of her post-Seventies records difficult to listen to. Some readers encouraged me to try those works again, suggesting specific albums. I’ve done some of that listening, and although much of that later work is still challenging, it’s not as entirely drear as I had thought. But I still think “Help Me,” which went to No. 7 in June of 1974 (No. 1 for a week on the Adult Contemporary chart), is the best thing she ever did.

I imagine I first heard the long strummed groove of “Bittersweet” on the radio, likely Cities 97, but wherever I heard it, I liked the song by Big Head Todd & the Monsters enough that – in a time when vinyl releases were rare and I had no CD player – I went out and bought the album on cassette, a format I tended to avoid. I think it was the long slow groove of the song that pulled me in, but it’s the story in the lyrics that keeps the track – which went to No. 14 on the Mainstream Rock chart – near the top of my list of favorites. Every generation finds its own versions of universal truths and tales, and “Bittersweet” is one generation’s version of the thought that even if you get what you dreamed of, you might find that it wasn’t what you really wanted.