Colorado’s Big Head Todd and the Monsters won a welcome as big as Texas when they played to a packed House of Blues in Houston on Friday, March the second.
It was almost a year ago that NASA’s Johnson Space Center hosted BHTM’s “Blue Sky” wake-up call to the Discovery’s STS-133 astronauts. Appropriately, lead vocalist and guitarist Todd Park Mohr, bassist Rob Squire, keyboardist and slide guitarist Jeremy Lawton and drummer Brian Nevin opened the Friday night show with the same song that gives Space City residents a sense of pride.
Although difficult to categorize, the jazzy, blues-based Monsters have cultivated a loyal following over their 27 years of performing. From college town venues to stadiums across the globe, their perpetual touring for their fans is “the reason I’ve not held a real job in 27 years,” Mohr told us after a thunderous applause.
Mohr and his fellow Monsters played selections from almost every album in their discography, but I was disappointed not to have heard anything from their alter-ego project 100 Years of Robert Johnson, a tribute album by Big Head Blues Club. Understandably, the band did not perform the songs without their famous blues collaborators like B. B. King, Charlie Musselwhite, the late Hubert Sumlin and Texas’ own Ruthie Foster.
Ultimately, Mohr and his Monsters gave Houston its fair share of the Blues, just as they gave us healthy doses of rhythmic funk, soul, rock and even a little southern rock for us Texans. Most of the tunes were originals, and a handful of covers were performed in original BHTM arrangements like Zeppelin’s “Tangerine” and King Floyd’s R&B 1970 hit “Groove Me.”
Of course, Big Head fans were hyped and ready to shout their requests for original tunes once Mohr asked for them. With the winning request, Mohr deviated from the set list and indulged us with “Vincent of Jersey” from their 1990 sophomore album Midnight Radio. The 72 second-long prequel to “Leaving Song” showcases Mohr’s early talent for spinning hum-drum observations into song-worthy lyrics. The song’s Camel-smoking, brandy-drinking protagonist longs to find genuine love in a pretentious setting; he trusts that “someday somebody’s gonna want me cause I’m Vincent of Jersey.”
Other than local bar bands, I have found it rare for national/global performers to ask audiences for requests. But BHTM is the exception, THE fan-friendly band. In fact, they’ve been known to take Internet requests a few days prior to a show.
With all of his experience, Mohr’s writing only improves with time. Friday night, I noticed a particular theme that Mohr often weaves within his lyrics: Empowered and confident women. The opening song, “Blue Sky” was “inspired by Eileen Collins, who was the female commander of the [2011 NASA Discovery] shuttle. I just found her story so inspirational. It kind of gave me a leaping-off point,” he told www.space.com last year. Three years prior to the Mission Control performance, Mohr had given Hillary Clinton permission to use “Blue Sky” as the soundtrack for her 2008 Democratic, Presidential primary campaign.
Half way through the show, the gritty, “Her Own Kind of Woman” from 2008’s All the Love You Need album struck a familiar note with anyone, man or woman, who has sworn “This time I ain’t gonna let it get me down” after a painful break-up. Mohr’s bending guitar riffs sound like the liberation that comes with the reclaiming of self after having shed a burdensome relationship. I was impressed with the live version of the song when Mohr and Lawton improvised by replacing the studio horn section with a conversation between their slide and steel guitars.
The Monsters also gave us a sneak peek into their unreleased “Black Bee Hive” single, a tribute to the late Amy Winehouse. Whether one considered Winehouse a confident or powerless woman is a matter of opinion. But all might agree that Winehouse’s raw talent and genuine feistiness were put to rest too early like the other famous members of the Dead at 27 Club. She “walked away and the sun went down, singing that soul song when no one’s around,” Mohr sang over a guitar’s lament.
Toward the end of Friday night’s concert, my guest and I noticed many of the early 30s—mid 40s females of my age group finally get what we wanted most: “Bittersweet.” Once Mohr picked the first riff of the band’s signature song, I felt the ear-drum piercing cries of women all around me. The ambiguity reflected in the “Bittersweet” lyrics and music might be what makes the song so appealing. If I am focused only on the music, I can’t pinpoint the emotion I feel. When I read the lyrics, I cannot determine if he will remain in the relationship. Or, is he simply making observations of a relationship that has moved beyond the initial stages of belly butterflies and heavy heartbeats?
I met Mike Canavard and Jeanne Schweer, an attractive couple who were bumpin and grindin’ to a raw and blistering “Dirty Juice” from 2004’s Crimes of Passion. An electrician by trade, Canavard reminisced at how the music he witnessed at Grateful Dead concerts is comparable to BHTM’s sound. “Their pattern is just like The Dead; they start slow, sultry, smooth before they elevate it into a party! The first two times I saw them was at Astroworld. You remember that place? Hahahaha!” I will take his word for it. I can’t seem to find such comparisons in patterns.
Having been a long-time fan of BHTM, the March 2 show was my first time to see them live. Surprisingly, I noticed a younger generation in attendance as well. The late teens—twenty something crowds were singing along and air-boxing to the funky “Muhammad Ali” from 2010’s Rocksteady. Right on cue, the audience helped Mohr with the chorus: “Float like a butterfly . . . Sting like a bee.”
Rocksteady is proof enough that the bluesy rockers have paid their dues. After more than a quarter of a century of recording and performing, the band earned its right to experiment with groovy, Caribbean and R&B styles. While a diverse album, the Monsters never forsake their original sound. A music enthusiast can easily decipher Mohr’s riffs within the first few measures of a song, just as one can distinguish Clapton’s Slow Hand from B. B. King’s Lucille. Also, bassist Rob Squires’ playing proves thick and decadent on Rocksteady. In keeping with the album’s 1970s grooves, Squires surprised us with what sounded like the musical soundtracks to skin flicks of the era. Once the band played the album’s title cut, I caught myself scanning the walls and ceilings for a disco ball under which I could roller skate. The songs they played from Rocksteady on Friday night were made of Solid Gold!
Once the band gave thanks and said their good-byes to us, the audience refused to let them go. BHTM’s encore set is what amazed me most about them. They performed a set of cover songs in their own musical arrangements. It may not have been until the middle of a song that I realized, for example, the “Sexy and I Know It” identity. Instead of performing the song in a Pop style, the guys played it in a Deep South blues fashion. The band also performed a clever medley of the Rolling Stone’s “Stray Cat Blues” mixed with Warren Zevon’s “Werewolves of London.” They left the crowd thirsty and wanting more when they closed the evening with the hard-driving “Black Betty.” Unlike Leadbelly’s original a cappella version, Mohr added his own Delta blues twist. His slurring guitar riffs had me wondering if he had been fishing on the Mississippi River and fileting mudcats only moments prior to the show.
Throughout “Black Betty,” Mohr traded mischievous glances with drummer Brian Nevin who may have left Houston with a threadbare kit. The workhorse drummer and occasional harmony singer is a commanding presence behind and beside the big-headed guy.
Audiences know when performers are or are not enjoying themselves on stage, and what audiences know often have a profound influence upon a band’s performance. The Monsters never have cause to worry because they do what they love most: pleasing their fans with their genuine talents and synergy.
Never miss an opportunity to see these master musicians live!
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