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Big Head Todd & the MonstersBlack Beehive BioSince their formation in the mid-’80s, Big Head Todd & the Monsters have continued to evolve and explore, moving beyond their Colorado...Expand
Big Head Todd & the Monsters
Black Beehive Bio
Since their formation in the mid-’80s, Big Head Todd & the Monsters have continued to evolve and explore, moving beyond their Colorado club circuit roots to become one of the most adventurous, respected and durable bands in America. Through constant touring and a zeal to travel down new musical avenues in the studio, BHTM (as their dedicated fans call them) have honed their collective stew of influences into a trademark hybrid sound that’s immediately recognizable. Now, with Black Beehive, their maiden release on Shout! Factory (February 4, 2014), the quartet has made its most personal and poignant album to date, a collection of new studio tracks that, says co-founder and figurehead Todd Park Mohr, “allows us to truly reach our audience through the language of the blues.”
Recorded at Butcher Boy Studios in Chicago, Mohr’s hometown of the past seven years, and produced and mixed by Grammy-winning multi-instrumentalist Steve Jordan (whose previous production credits include John Mayer, Buddy Guy, Solomon Burke and Robert Cray), Black Beehive arrives a quarter-century after the group’s debut album, Another Mayberry, first put Big Head Todd & the Monsters on the map beyond their home base. Today, the original trio—Mohr on guitar and vocals, Brian Nevin on drums and vocals and Rob Squires on bass and vocals—along with keyboardist/pedal steel guitarist Jeremy Lawton, who joined in 2004, are still opening themselves to new possibilities even as they further explore their roots. “It has some contemporary elements that bridge a gap between alternative pop and traditional blues,” says Mohr about Black Beehive, whose title refers to the late British soul singer Amy Winehouse, the inspiration behind the album’s title track. The band approached the recording in an old-school organic fashion, playing together in the studio, which Mohr describes as “a big open space,” and sticking to the basics. “I played resonator guitar on almost every song and most of the album is kind of simple: guitar, slide guitar, drums and bass,” he says. “We only had two guests on the album. One was Eddie Shaw, who was Howlin’ Wolf’s harmonica player for many years, and Ronnie Baker Brooks, who played guitar. And Steve Jordan played on almost every track—various things, percussion, rhythm guitar.”
Jordan, whose incredible career began when he joined Stevie Wonder’s band as a teenager, later going on to perform in the Saturday Night Live band, Paul Shaffer's World's Most Dangerous Band on Late Night with David Letterman, and backing John Belushi and Dan Akroyd when they toured as The Blues Brothers, has an unbelievable production roster but is also well-known as a drummer. A member of the John Mayer Trio, Jordan also toured and recorded with Keith Richards and the X-pensive Winos, joined Eric Clapton for his 2006 European tour, and has also worked with Bruce Springsteen, Neil Young, Bob Dylan, B.B. King, James Brown and more.
Mohr first met Jordan through the legendary guitarist Hubert Sumlin, who died in 2011. “We were planning to have an 80th birthday party for Hubert,” says Todd, “and Steve was the musical director. When Hubert passed away it ended up being a tribute at the Apollo Theater: Eric Clapton and Billy Gibbons and Keith Richards—there were probably 35 incredible musicians at this thing. I was immediately awestruck by Steve’s command of the material and his understanding of it and his ability to get it done on short notice with all these people. I thought this guy would be an unbelievable producer for me to work with. I sent him some demos and he was up for it.”
As he began writing material for the album, Mohr drew from both his own life experiences and events in the news. The title track was written following Winehouse’s death. “I love her voice and her performances, and obviously her shenanigans were part of her persona,” says Mohr. Several other songs were also ripped from the headlines, including “We Won’t Go Back,” which Mohr penned about the 2010 Arab Spring uprisings in the Middle East, and “Fear, Greed and Ignorance,” whose topical lyrics declare that it’s those three dishonorable traits that are “driving you America off the edge of the road.”
Not every track is quite so pointed, however. “Hubert’s Dream,” is a nod to the late Mr. Sumlin, while album opener “Hey Delila” is Mohr’s tribute to another blues giant, Memphis Minnie. “I happened to acquire a great example of her instrument, which was a 1941 Spanish National resonator guitar. Plus, she has an incredible life story,” he says. “Everything About You” is dedicated to NASA, who called upon BHTM to awaken the Discovery space shuttle crew with their song “Blue Sky” in 2011, marking the first time live music was ever used for that purpose.
Among the album’s other tunes, “Josephina” and “Seven State Lines” are what Mohr describes simply as “blues-based themes,” while “I Get Smooth” is “a comedy piece.” The cautionary tale “Travelin’ Light” is the story of lovers who “threw away our hearts and fled” and the moving “Forever Bonnie” is based on a true story of a “gentleman who got a love letter delivered to him 53 years later by the Postal Service.” Black Beehive also includes, as a bonus track, Big Head Todd & the Monsters’ burning take on the Jimmy Reed blues classic “Baby What You Want Me To Do,” a song that Jordan requested they cut.
For BHTM, Black Beehive serves as both a reaffirmation of the band’s roots and a step into the next 25 years. Founded as a trio in Boulder, Colorado in 1986, Big Head Todd & the Monsters quickly built a strong reputation on the local club circuit. As word of their soulful and intense live show traveled around the nation they found themselves filling larger and larger venues. BHTM have now played Denver’s historic Red Rocks Amphitheatre more than 20 times, and are embedded in the fabric of Colorado’s music scene.
Beginning with Another Mayberry in 1989, critics noticed what audiences at BHTM live shows already knew. The All Music Guide praised the “subtlety of Mohr’s lyrics” and his “individual world view.” But it was the follow-up, 1990’s Midnight Radio, that truly established the band as a creative force to be reckoned with. Its popularity led to a major label contract and the release of the platinum-selling Sister Sweetly in 1993. With subsequent albums such as 1994’s Strategem and 1997’s Beautiful World, the band earned a place among the top names on the jam band circuit, solidified by 1998’s Live Monsters, the first official concert recording by Big Head Todd & the Monsters. Riviera was released in 2002, followed by 2004’s Crimes of Passion, of which The London Times stated "American rock doesn't get anymore classy than this." Later that year, Live at the Fillmore was released to critical praise. All Music Guide called the release, the band’s first with Jeremy Lawton, “loud, proud, and full of righteous raw ambience.”
The band, which has always proudly controlled its own business dealings and marketing, gave away 2007’s All the Love You Need through their email list, radio stations, and magazines. Their ninth studio album, Rocksteady, followed in 2010. Said Examiner.com, “With Rocksteady, the Colorado boys prove they can sprinkle in a plethora of differing music styles and still rock.” 2011’s 100 Years of Robert Johnson, the album preceding Black Beehive, found the group paying tribute to the pioneering bluesman while performing as Big Head Blues Club (along with other notable blues legends, including B. B. King, Charlie Musselwhite, Cedric Burnside, David “Honeyboy” Edwards, Sumlin, Ruthie Foster, and Lightnin’ Malcolm). The band toured behind the album with a few of the guest artists, marking some of the final performances by both Edwards and Sumlin. Mohr kland appve a more mature perspecists at the aforementioned ed artist at the aforementioned tribute show at the Apollo Theatre. paid tribute to Sumlin in 2012 when he served as a featured artist at his tribute show at the Apollo Theatre.
With all of that history behind them, it would be easy for Big Head Todd & the Monsters to play the nostalgia card and fall back on past glories, but that’s of no interest to them. BHTM still performs, and devoutly loves, the material that first brought them to their fans – material they now approach with a fresh, seasoned perspective. “As a writer and as a human being there’s a big difference between being 21 and 47,” says Mohr. “Having said that, I think a lot of those compositions are still lyrically sound, even though it’s hard for me to imagine that I would have had the experience to write about the stuff I did. Obviously, I think the band has gotten better over the years because when you develop yourself you continue to improve, and I think we have improved musically. As a writer, I’m really pleased with where I’m at right now.”
“A lot of it had to do with my experience with the Robert Johnson project,” he adds. “That had a large impact on how I looked at music. For a large portion of my career, I’ve been trying to reproduce the success of Sister Sweetly, just as a touchstone of ‘this is a pop song, or rock-pop.’ Pop songs have pretty narrow rules when it comes down to it. Generally you need a chorus and a bridge. The blues material from Robert Johnson’s day, the prewar blues, was so fascinating to me because of the fact that it is pop music but there are no choruses. It’s a different way of having repetition and themes and a different goal for a pop song. The music is shared by everybody because it’s passed down through tradition. The whole spirit of what one is going for is radically different than pop and that really became exciting for me because I could see a new way to reach people.”
When Big Head Todd & the Monsters launch their extensive national tour behind Black Beehive in January—which will continue through the summer and hit most major markets—they will be honing the album’s ageless blues along the way, and simultaneously affirming their own longevity. It’s clear that they possess a rare musical wholeness that has not only survived for 25 plus years, but still has them looking forward to creating music together night after night. “The other guys have shown great support of my songwriting and what I’m able to do, and all of the band members bring a lot to the plate, both musically and as a unit,” says Mohr. “No one ever expects a band to last this long. We’re very, very lucky.”
G. Love and Special Sauce
Twenty years after the release of their self-titled debut and eight years since their last live performance together, the original lineup of G. Love & Special Sauce return with their first album in nearly a decade. Built on the trio's signature hip-hop blues sound, Sugar finds vocalist/guitarist/harmonica player G. Love (aka Garrett Dutton), upright bassist James "Jimi Jazz" Prescott, and drummer Jeffrey "The Houseman" Clemens breathing new life into their groove-heavy, Chicago-blues-infused brand of stripped-down rock & roll. "The goal for the album was to make it really raw and immediate, with live takes and live vocals and everybody playing so that it all comes together in that intangible way," says G. Love. "That's what our music is all about."
Recorded mainly at Brushfire Records' "Solar Powered Plastic Plant" studio in Los Angeles, Sugar captures the unstoppable energy of a band who got their start in Boston bars in the early '90s and still play up to 150 shows a year. "We wanted to take it back to the old-school vibe of the first record, those rich, warm sounds from when we were rocking small clubs and going on that acoustic feeling," says Prescott. To deepen that dynamic and push their sound into new directions, G. Love & Special Sauce called in guest musicians like Los Lobos guitarist David Hidalgo (who appears on three of the album's tracks), soul/R&B singer/songwriter Marc Broussard, and the legendary vocalist Merry Clayton (best known for her duet with Mick Jagger on the Rolling Stones' "Gimme Shelter"). "Recording at Brushfire was one of those super-magical sessions—it just felt right and really true to the style of this band," notes G. Love, who also recorded several of Sugar's tracks in Seattle with Clemens and bassist Timo Shanko.
While most of the first songs G. Love penned for Sugar were written in response to a recent breakup, the album ended up morphing into a gritty but joyful look at the thrill and grind of getting by as a musician. At the album's heart is the swaggering title track, which fuses Elmore James-inspired slide licks with big and bouncy hip-hop beats. That mood is matched on tracks like "Good Life" (a Bo Diddley-style jam powered by the fiery guitar work of David Hidalgo), "Saturday Night" (a steamy serenade to New York City, laced with sultry vocals by Alabama-bred folk/soul singer/songwriter Kristy Lee), and "Weekend Dance" (an all-out party anthem fueled by sweet and smoldering horns, co-written by Eric Krasno and featuring rapper Shamarr Allen). Meanwhile, "Too Much Month" serves as a brilliantly bittersweet ode to being broke ("I got too much month for the end of my money/And not enough money for the end of the month"), and "Nite Life" slyly warns of the dangers of rock & roll living in its groove-laden take on John Lee Hooker's "Whiskey and Wimmin."
Peppered throughout Sugar are a handful of love songs of all stripes, from the moody, brooding breakup ballad "Windshield Wipers" to the bruised but breezy "Cheating Heart" (featuring Eric Krasno on lead guitar and background vocals) to "Bad Girl Baby Blues" (an acoustic, guitar-and-vocals-only track whose lyrics spin a daydream tale of an ideal night at home, complete with drinking red wine out of pawn-shop-bought glasses). And on "One Night Romance" (written by Kristy Lee and featuring vocals from both Lee and Merry Clayton), Sugar turns soulful and seductive in its harmony-soaked plea to "come get unlonely with me."
In bringing Sugar to life, G. Love & Special Sauce mined musical sources as varied as the hypnotic blues-guitar work of John P. Hammond and John Lee Hooker, the boundary-bending rhythms of The Meters and Lee Dorsey, and the infectious beats and seamless flow of hip-hop pioneers like A Tribe Called Quest, The Beastie Boys, and De La Soul. And although each band member brings his own distinct influences to their creative collaboration—G. Love's lyrics draw inspiration from the street-wise storytelling of Lou Reed, Prescott is highly studied in New Orleans jazz, and Clemens's drumming references everything from early-'70s Nigerian funk to the rocksteady era of reggae—Sugar again reveals the uncommon intensity and power of their musical synergy. "There's a certain natural, unspoken chemistry between the three of us," says Clemens. "Because we're all very different individuals and oftentimes do our best communicating through our instruments, we're able to meet in a musical conversation where others might not be able to."
For G. Love & Special Sauce, that conversation began back in 1993, when G. Love serendipitously took the stage as a fill-in opening act at the Irish pub where Clemens's then-girlfriend waited tables. "I'd had this idea that I needed to find a kid who could play blues but also rap, and that's exactly what I got," says Clemens. "It was like, 'This is the kid that's speaking the language I hear in my head.'" Then 19, G. Love had recently moved to Boston from his native Philadelphia, where he first picked up a guitar at age eight and spent much of his teen years as a street musician. "I grew up right by a place called South Street where there were a lot of street performers, from puppeteers to this guy playing Mozart on wine glasses to classical guitar players," he says. "One night I was out there and I finished playing a riff on my song and started rapping the lyrics to 'Paid in Full' by Eric B. & Rakim over a groove, and I was like, 'Holy shit—that's it.'" Heading to Boston the same summer he first started developing that hip-hop/blues hybrid, G. Love quickly connected with Clemens, who then tapped Prescott (a local musician he'd met through a jazz jam session). Within a week the three got together for a rehearsal—featuring G. Love on Dobro guitar, Clemens on a vintage drum kit with brushes instead of sticks, and Prescott on upright bass—and soon began working on songs for their debut album.
Propelled by hit singles like "Cold Beverage" and "Baby's Got Sauce," G. Love and Special Sauce ultimately reached gold status and helped the band build a following that endures today. One of the songs originally written for that album (and inspired by G. Love's early days in Boston and "those nights when I would just walk around and try to get somebody to buy me a pint of Jim Beam"), "Run for Me" makes its first-ever recorded appearance on Sugar and remains timeless in its portrait of the struggle of pursuing a musical passion. "At first I thought this record was gonna be a heartbreak record about my old relationship, but then the sentiment shifted," says G. Love. "A lot of the songs became about coming up from where we started to where are now and still keeping it going, still staying afloat," he continues. "To me that's a much more interesting story to tell."