Big Head Todd and The Monsters
featuring Hazel Miller, J.D. Simo
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Partially Seated, Dance Floor by Stage
Big Head Todd And The Monsters
Big Head Todd and the Monsters are not that big on anniversaries, so there won’t be any big hoopla over the fact that the band is officially crossing the three-decade mark this year. Thirty years would seem like something to commemorate, especially with the same core lineup, an achievement few other name-brand bands can boast of. Yet right now they’re less about celebrating stability than volatility, in the form of their eleventh studio album, New World Arisin’, which makes good on its forward-facing title with what might be the brashest rock and roll of their career. The old world can’t rest on any laurels, and neither will they.
“We’re in a real exciting part of our career right now,” says co-founder Todd Park Mohr. “We’re a viable band with a great audience and we’re able to work at a very high level. It’s a career that’s getting more and more interesting, rather than less, which is remarkable,” he says, chuckling at the unlikelihood of anyone being this cheerfully all-in, this far in. “I mean, 30 years into it, I really feel like: Wow, this is getting fun. I’m learning more about music and about my instrument, and it’s just really engaging in every way. We also dovetail well with the times, I think; I feel like we have something to say.”
That desire to communicate and connect is very much reflected in a new album that explores a variety of subgenres, from the funky (“Trip”) to the unexpectedly punky (“Detonator”), with stops along the way for raging country-rock (“Damaged One”), expansive storytelling in the Van Morrison/early Springsteen mode (“Wipeout Turn”), a Jimi Hendrix cover (“Room Full of Mirrors”), and, in the title track, “New World Arisin’,” a Charley Patton-inspired tune that ended up having what Mohr describes as “a heavy metal/gospel feel.” He doesn’t feel these musical zigzags will give fans musical whiplash. “The fact is, most people, like myself, listen to multiple genres of music, so I don’t think people have a problem with variety. I love it.”
But if there’s a dominant musical motif to New World Arisin’, it’s “straight-up rock-pop,” says Mohr. That contemporary approach might come as a slight surprise to hardcore fans that saw the Monsters take a seriously rootsy turn or two in the last 10 years. The band embarked on a side project, dubbed Big Head Blues Club, that saw them paying homage to Robert Johnson and bringing in venerable guest collaborators like Charlie Musselwhite and the late B.B. King. The heavy blues influence that dominated their alter-ego band carried over some into the last actual Big Head Todd and the Monsters album, 2014’s Black Beehive. That element isn’t altogether missing in New World Arisin’; you’ll certainly hear it recur in “Long Coal Train.” But this time the blues take a definite back seat to the unapologetically mainstream instincts that had Big Head Todd going platinum in the mid-’90s with the album Sister Sweetly, which spawned the rock radio hits “Broken Hearted Savior,” “Bittersweet,” and “Circle.”
“Commercial success is still a goal for me and for our band,” Mohr says, “as far as the sense of communicating to, or striking a chord with a large number of people. We feel like we have something to say and something to offer the culture.” Plus, a true confession: “I’m interested in the pop song! And I think ‘Damaged One,’ for one, is a classic pop song. Our label would have killed for that song, back then,” in the wake of those mainstream radio hits that established the band. “They begged me to write it! So there’s a lot of irony in our coming back to that.”
The history of the group actually stretches farther back from the 1987 point at which they took their name. The core members came together at such an early age that it’s hard to know exactly how many candles to put on their collective cake. “It’s murky,” Mohr says, “because I’ve been playing with Brian (Nevin, their drummer) since junior high school, so the two of us go back to 1982. Brian and I played a talent show with Rob (Squires, the bass player) in 1983, and then we continued to plug at it, at a kids’ pace,” he laughs. They began playing original music in earnest in a nascent Colorado music scene that then consisted almost entirely of cover bands. A debut album, Another Mayberry, arrived in 1989, though it would be another four years before Sister Sweetly made them a national phenomenon. The only personnel change in these three decades has been the addition of a fourth member, putative “new guy” Jeremy Lawton, in 2004.
While they enjoy a robust fan base around the country, their success is outsized in Colorado, where they’re practically the unofficial state band. That’s evident in their ability to sell out Red Rocks, the most revered amphitheater in the nation, where they’ve headlined 19 times. It also comes into play when the band gets asked to be a part of commemorative moments: Mohr recently sang the national anthem at a Rockies game, and the entire band took part in the parade through Denver after the Broncos took the Super Bowl.
Their honors extend beyond their home state and even home country… into space. In 2005, they released the single “Blue Sky,” a tribute to the space program, written at the behest of crew members taking to the heavens aboard the space shuttle Discovery; it was performed years later as a live wake-up call to the astronauts on the shuttle. The song had enough appeal back on earth, too, that it was picked up by the Hillary Clinton campaign in 2008 and used to introduce her keynote speech to the Democratic convention.
That campaign usage didn’t come about as a result of any desire on Mohr’s part to take the band in a political direction. He’s not so interested in getting Big Head Todd and the Monsters caught up in that particular fray as looking at the smaller and bigger pictures, wanting to keep the material topical in some far deeper fashion.
“Our audience is America, and I’m guessing it breaks down to the same percentages the country itself has,” he says. “We’ve never gotten in the business of polarizing people politically. But at the same time, as artists, it’s our job to observe and to hopefully find some insight. I’ve always been interested in the human condition more than politics. Politics are a part of it, but I always look at conflict as personal before it’s political. And I would consider conflict my dominant lyrical theme now— how people are trapped in it, and how conflict relates to intimacy and pleasure.” A Big Head Todd show, in any case, is a place where those conflicts might resolve, or dissolve. “In talking about our apolitical-ness, I think unity is an important thing,” Mohr says. “Being a human being, you have a lot in common with other human beings, and why not maximize those things? Music has an incredible capacity to convey other cultures and times, and to create a lot of empathy and togetherness. There’s harmony in it, and it implies oneness — the root.”
There’s an economy to the songs on the new album, most of which clock in around four minutes, and sometimes even closer to three. You’d think this would make Big Head Todd and the Monsters the farthest thing from a jam band. Yet they have a fervent following among that subset of rock fans, lack of noodling notwithstanding. Maybe it’s because of the changing nature of their set lists, since the Monsters are known to take requests, both in person and online.
“Our focus has always been on serving the song,” Mohr says. “We haven’t historically been that jammy. Which isn’t to say that we don’t have an occasional six-minute number -- we do. But having said that, I have a great respect for that audience, which I think is just a music-loving audience. You know, one year I got invited to the Jammies at Carnegie Hall, and I got in a discussion with somebody: ‘Well, how do you define a jam band?’ And he told me, ‘A jam band doesn’t repeat a song for three shows in a row.’ That was the only way that he would define it. I could almost follow that rule, except there are probably four songs I have to play every night. So I guess those four songs are what’s keeping us from ever being a jam band,” he laughs.
What’s clear is that Big Head Todd is one multi-headed rock monster, easily traversing the most accessible hooks and the heaviest grooves. It’s not surprising that they would appeal to any audience or sub-audience that values durability over flavors of the moment. But Mohr has to laugh when he thinks about how little the possibility of long-term perseverance was on the members’ minds 30 years ago.
“When you form, I think your goal is to make it through the party on Saturday night,” he points out. “In art, longevity isn’t the goal. It’s a happy accident if it happens, and I think ours was one of those convenient accidents that led to a happy marriage. But we happen to get along really well and love being with each other and playing music for a living.” Simple as it may sound, that’s a profound recipe for endurance in both the old world and the new.
JD Simo's brand of blues is like the surge of sound from a classic car, say a Chevy V-8. It starts with a roar, then a rumble. Then a low, throaty hum. The explosion of the gas in the cylinders are like emotional triggers - liberating, visceral. Intense. JD Simo's style of blues reminds us of that Chevy V-8. He's a classic car, hard-charging, built for speed. But like a good mechanic, he knows what's under the hood. He's learned the intricacies, the subtleties, the nuance, of the car. The same way he's learned the blues.
On Off At 11, you can almost touch the ghosts of the brilliant, wounded masters of the blues who have shaped and guided his art and craft. "The blues, it's grown folks music," Simo says from his home in Nashville. "The blues is not for kids. Blues to me, it’s an art form. It's not supposed to be flashy. And that fools a lot of people."
Simo has channeled life experience into a conversation about life experience. "There isn't a single way to express the blues, thank God," he chuckles. "You can be joyful or plaintive, all in the same song. And there are always two sides of me when I play, because I'm eternally obsessed with both. There's my love for obscure black music from the Forties and Fifties, and how I choose to relate to them. There's also my trippy, psychedelic side, the possibilities that the Dead and the Allmans present. Or where John McLaughlin points me on Bitches Brew."
Born and raised on Chicago's South Side, Simo grew up in the Lincoln Heights section over a bar that his father owned called The Store. "I started playing when I was 4 or 5. I was playing in bars like Blues on Halstead and Kingston Mines. I was making money by the time I was in the seventh and eighth grades."
The family relocated to Phoenix, which was fortuitous, he says, because the liquor laws were more lenient "and I could start to make money in the clubs." He left home at age 15. "I was a terrible student," he relates, "but I'd done my musical homework, that's for sure."
The masters inspire Simo every day. "Which one of the thousand do you want to discuss?" he asks. He is being both playful but also utterly serious. "T-Bone Walker and Pee Wee Crayton? Elmore James and Robert Nighthawk? Otis Rush and Earl Hooker? Buddy Guy and Jimmy Rogers?"
The list goes on.
"Gatemouth Brown and Johnny (Guitar) Watson. Eddie Taylor and Albert Collins?
Then there are the rockers, too, like Scotty Moore, and Chuck Berry."
Off At 11 is a whip-smart showcase for Simo's virtuosity and crafty, crafted and crowdpleasing songs. You can feel the energy of the dangerous dives that nurtured him. He cut it in two days at his home studio in Nashville. "Eight tracks, vintage mics and gear, no bells and whistles," he says. "Just everything I need."
Simo shares a slice of his soul in "Sweet Little Angel," a tribute as much to B.B. King's Live at The Regal album as a debt of gratitude to Mike Bloomfield for his playing on The Live Adventures of Mike Bloomfield and Al Kooper.
"Mike is one of my heroes," he says.
New arrangements of Little Walter's "Boom, Boom, Out Go The Lights" and Slim Harpo's "Got Love If You Want It" also demonstrate how funk has shaped Simo's rhythmic sensibility almost as much as traditional blues.
Simo is a fine singer, too, writing emotion from time-honored blues themes like good love and betrayal. He moves from pained to plush in songs like "Temptation" while the greasy "Mind Trouble" evokes the hoodoo of the masterful Lightnin' Hopkins.
Other songs, such as the title track, are rooted in the flight of modern jazz.
"Naturally, I love Duane Allman," he offers. "But I also live in that magical world when psychedelia transformed the blues, r&b, jazz and pop music in the late Sixties. When Yusef Lateef, Wayne Shorter, Coltrane and Ornette were pushing boundaries. The whole scene was like a lava lamp, totally open-minded. I'm always mindful of the paths and possibilities they explored."
That feeling of freedom, Simo says, not only informs his playing but also fills him with a profound sense of gratitude and humility.
"It's a very spiritual feeling," he relates. "The elders have taught me that it’s okay for me to be myself when I play. It's like the conversation I had with Phil Lesh. Phil knows that I love traditional blues, but that I also like to go to Mars! But when you’re true to yourself, he said, you don’t have to compartmentalize your imagination."
Simo was born too late for the "blues revival" of the Sixties, when country-style bluesmen like Lightin' Hopkins were rediscovered by fans and folklorists. But his blues power is right on time for a new generation.
"There's a time and a place for shredding. But what's happened to the blues in the last 25 years is a terrible thing. I dig Gary Clark and Derek Trucks. But there's also a purity in what Anson Funderburgh and Jimmie Vaughan do. Simplicity resonates with me.
"I've worn a lot of other people's clothes," he concludes. "But I'm starting to feel more comfortable in my own skin. It's still so incredible to me that I've never had to pick up a shovel, or work construction. I'm very grateful and very blessed to say that I play guitar for a living. Even if it’s just for one more day."
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Set times and support acts subject to change.
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