You could argue that Robert Johnson, the doomed 1920s-era Mississippi bluesman, was the first rock 'n' roll star. Johnson certainly played the role, with his flair for the dramatic, questionable lifestyle choices and early death. More particularly, he sounded the part: Tough and honest, full of vibrancy, danger and rhythm.
Whether you've actually ever heard a Robert Johnson recordhe put out just 29 songs for the old Vocolion label in 1936-37is of little importance. If you've been around popular music over the last 50 years, you've heard pieces of him. Four of his songs, Sweet Home Chicago" and Cross Road Blues (both from 1936) along with Hellhound on My Trail" and Love in Vain" (from '37), have been recognized by the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame for helping shape the genre. You also hear Johnson in Eric Clapton and the Rolling Stones, in Led Zeppelin and Bob Dylan, in early Fleetwood Mac and even Beck. And, now, in the music of Big Head Todd.
On the new 100 Years of Robert Johnson, out today on Ryko/Big Records, the Colorado-based indie-rock band has rechristened itself the Big Head Blues Club. Check the liner notes, and you'll see why: The control room was jam-packed with roots-rocking guests. Guitarist Todd Park Mohr, bassist Rob Squires, drummer Brian Nevin and keyboardist Jeremy Lawton welcomed legends B.B. King, Hubert Sumlin, David Honeyboy" Edwards and Charlie Musselwhite, as well next-gen blues stars like Ruthie Foster, Cedric Burnside and Lightnin' Malcolm.
Of special note is the appearance of Honeyboy" Edwards, said to have been there on the night that Johnson diedthe victim of strychnine-laced whiskey, likely from a jealous husband who'd had enough of Johnson's juke-joint shenanigans. Johnson was just 27.
Edwards, who'll be 96 in June, rumbles out to start the riffy If I Had Possession Over Judgement Day," even as the song is rocketed forward to a series of shambling epiphanies by tart drum asides from Cedric Burnside. Edwards then returns for a sharp-edged take on the album-closing Sweet Home Chicago," sounding like an ornery porch-sitting truth-teller. Musselwhite follows closely along, weaving in and out of Edwards' gnarled lines.
That, actually, wraps up a virtuoso string of performances for Musselwhite, who also adds a squalling harmonica to Come On In My Kitchen," then slips in for a series of feathery, inquisitive asides on Last Fair Deal Gone Down." Of course, as noted earlier, B.B. King steals the show on Crossroad Blues." Lightnin' Malcolm also plays slide on Ramblin' On My Mind," and acoustic on Preachin' Blues."
Enjoyable as all of that no doubt is, 100 Years would simply be filed away as another tribute album but for the engaging, positively un-worshipful fun clearly being had by Mohr and Co. This is no funeral. It's a celebration, and Big Head Toddrather than getting lost amidst so much historyplay it that way.
You hear it in the layered shuffle rhythm put down by Squires and Nevin during Kitchen," in Mohr's subtle but vital vocal turn on All My Love's in Vain," in Lawton's just-right old-timey piano on Kind Hearted Woman." Ruthie Foster shares the lyric with Mohr on When You've Got a Friend," to great effect, as well. The song is remade into a conversation between two people, adding a new complexity.
During these moments, perhaps more so even than when contemporaries like Edwards reinterpret the music, Robert Johnson's sweeping influence is underscored once again. And not in the liner notes. But right there, in the grooves.