When Big Head Todd (Todd Park Mohr) took the stage at Northern Lights Theater (Potawatomi Casino) in Milwaukee, and commenced to sing “John the Revelator” a cappella, you knew it was going to be good night. A night of music dedicated to the 100th birthday of Robert Johnson, the “Blues at the Crossroads” tour featured Big Head Todd and the Monsters, plus many special guests, working in different combinations throughout the evening to deliver some fine, fine blues work, conjuring up the man who supposedly sold his soul to the devil in order to play the guitar the way he played it. However, it wasn’t just a redelivery of the blues; those songs were played through the influences of many, many generations.
After Mohr played another solo on steel guitar for “Stones in My Pocket,” he was joined on stage by Lightin’ Malcolm on guitar and Jeremy Lawton on keys to take that country blues walk through “Kind Hearted Woman” where Mohr really hit a heartaching falsetto. All of the Monsters plus Malcolm then came on stage for “When You Got a Good Friend” with guest Cedric Burnside adding his flavor on drums for a song that’s electrified and jammed up.
Burnside stepped up to the guitar for “Ramblin’ on My Mind” which started off with a real country feel only to land into a funk thing when Monster Brian Nevin kicked in the drums. With Burnside back on the drums for “Walking Blues,” things took on a funk march feel leading to a double drum solo by Burnside and Nevin. A country blues and funk combo would show up again later on “If I Had Possession Over Judgment Day.” “Come On In My Kitchen” was organ drenched with Mohr’s guitar solo really making it dirty.
Other treats in the evening, though, were clearly when the 95-year-old David “Honeyboy” Edwards came to lay down three songs with his guitar, including “Sweet Home Chicago.” Despite coming out using a cane, once the man was seated, you could see that he still had all the energy needed to play them blues. Then Hubert Sumlin came out to play guitar as well. Needing oxygen wasn’t going to stop this blues legend either.
Despite all of the personnel changes, the show never felt like it was just a revue—spotlights on various acts without sense of unity. What the Big Head Blues Club delivered was a show that brought together masters at their trade, playing songs together in such a way that unified them around the great music of the legend Robert Johnson.
The show closed out with everyone on stage doing “Dust My Broom” and a tag of “Sweet Home Chicago.” All in all, it was one of those concerts that I could only wish could go on for a lot longer.
Fortunately, the spirit and music of the night is well-captured in the Big Head Blues Club album, 100 Years of Robert Johnson. Featuring many of these same guests, plus others like B.B. King, the album does more than dusts off these songs like an antique Victrola on display; the band cranks up that record player, drops the needle, lets the songs play out, and adds some intense wattage.