Robert Johnson's Crossroads Blues" remains one of the most terrifying, wonder-filled songs, even if you don't know the oft-told tale of how the doomed Mississippi bluesman became so proficient so quickly at playing his guitar.
It's one of the reasons that, despite the brevity of his time on this earthborn about 1910 and dead by 1938, likely poisoned by a lover's jealous mate after recording just 29 tunesJohnson is still a touchstone for artists as diverse as Eric Clapton and Big Head Todd, the Colorado-based hipster-rock group.
The latter assembled an impressive group of blues legends, rechristened themselves the Big Head Blues Club, and are issuing the forthcoming 100 Years of Robert Johnsonhighlighted by Crossroads Blues," featuring B.B. King.
They give King, the Gibson-toting octogenarian who began his career in the 1940s, plenty of room to pick and croonadding only a conversational organ, a whispery rhythm riff and this crisp echoing drum signature. B.B. then just does what B.B. does, grabbing hold of the familiar lyric about selling your soul to the devil, and tearing off burst after burst of brilliant bent-string guitar fills. There are bits of Charlie Christian and Django ReinhartKing is blues music's jazziest superstarbut his playing also brings in the vocalese of Bukka White's slide, a flinty T-Bone Walker bravado, and the intricate rusticity of Blind Lemon Jefferson.
In other words, B.B. King definitively illustrates why he is the living embodiment of everything Robert Johnson, a nakedly emotional singer and a brilliant technician, once pointed the way toward.
I'd always heard the more aggressive versions of Robert's more popular songs," said Big Head Todd guitarist and vocalist Todd Park Mohr. But in studying his singing, guitar playing, and the songs themselves, I experienced a blues enlightenment. There is a rich complexity, a vulnerability and humanness throughout the Delta blues traditions that is often overlooked."
Of course, Big Head Toddrounded out by bassist Rob Squires, drummer Brian Nevin and keyboardist Jeremy Lawtonjoin a long tradition of rock artists who've covered Robert Johnson, from Led Zeppelin to the Rolling Stones to the Grateful Dead. 100 Years, to be issued Feb. 1 by Ryko/Big Records, stands out with its guest list: They include Hubert Sumlin ("When You Got a Good Friend"), Honeyboy Edwards ("If I Had Possession Over Judgement Day") and Charlie Musselwhite ("Come On In My Kitchen" and Last Fair Deal Gone Done"). Recording was done at the Ardent Studios in Memphis before the watchful eye of Grammy award-winning producer Chris Goldsmith (Blind Boys of Alabama, Musselwhite).
In a way, the Delta blues that Johnson represented is really the blood and guts of everything else that followed," Mohr said. So for me it's kind of getting back to that marrow, and luckily we had a producer who really understood blues music."
A forthcoming national tour, called Blues at the Crossroads: The Robert Johnson Centennial Concerts," will feature a rotating cast of many of the participants in these sessions.