By David Werther.
Big Head Blues Club, 100 Years of Robert Johnson (Big Records, 2011)
Todd Park Mohr (aka "Big Head Todd") recognizes the great expanse separating the aching vulnerability and pain of the great Delta Bluesmen and the high-octane, pumped-up treatment rock musicians like to give their music. That is not necessarily a bad thing. Cream's version of "Crossroads" is a masterpiece; Clapton's performance is legendary. But it isn't Robert Johnson. In celebration of the centennial of Johnson's birth, Mohr rejects rock pyrotechnics, thereby putting more emphasis on vocals and lyrics.
Honoring Robert Johnson is an ambitious goal, and Mohr draws upon some greats to give Johnson his due. Among the players on 100 Years of Robert Johnson are B.B. King, Charlie Musselwhite, and David "Honeyboy" Edwards. Edwards, now 95, was one of the last people to see Johnson before his death on August 16th, 1938. Edwards lends vocals to "If I Had Possession Over Judgment Day," and sings and plays guitar on "Sweet Home Chicago," accompanied only by Charlie Musselwhite's harmonica. B.B. King and Mohr share guitar and vocals on "Cross Road Blues," which has a spooky, swampy feel. And, harkening back to Johnson's unaccompanied original recordings, Mohr handles "Love in Vain" on his own.
There is something of a paradox in covering the music of a great performer like Robert Johnson. A successful cover sends the listener back to the original. Thanks to Mohr, I am listening to those recordings that Johnson made in room #414 of the Gunter Hotel back in 1936.