Big Head Todd and the Monsters have been fans of blues music since their first days together playing music in high school, so it only makes sense they'd eventually record am album in this seminal form. Accordingly, in 2011 the band delved into the blues with their first 'Big Head Blues Club' project, 100 Years of Robert Johnson (Big Records, 2011), which featured guest appearances by Bobby King, Hubert Sumlin, Charlie Musselwhite, David Honeyboy Edwards, and others. The success of that album led to a limited number of tour dates that same year and in the summer of 2016, under the same moniker, albeit with different but no less invested personnel,including McKinley "Muddy Waters" Morganfield's son Mud, and Ronnie Baker Brooks, offspring of Lonnie Brooks) the ensemble produced Way Down Inside featuring a playlist of songs (almost) exclusively composed by Willie Dixon, one the most prolific and accomplished songwriters in modern blues and rock n' roll.
The album couldn't have a better opener than "Hidden Charms." Not only does the performance illustrate how effortlessly this music comes to Big Head Todd & The Monsters, et. al., but the song itself depicts how artfully Willie Dixon wrote meaning between the lines in his lyrics and, at the same time, applied a twist to reliable blues changes to transform them into fresh progressions. The horns there, unfortunately uncredited, ride the reliable foundation of BHTM, particularly the rhythm section of bassist Rob Squires and drummer Brian Nevins, while keyboardist Jeremy Lawton, using electric piano, vividly colors the arrangement.
"You Need Love" proves how and why Way Down Inside is as much of an honest homage to the blues as the Blues Club's initial foray. Literal and figurative credit as the the author of the tune goes to Dixon, who also functioned as bassist of the Chess Records house band in the Chicago studios' heyday. Similarly, "Bring It On Home" transcends the cliché its title has become, its sinuous performance leading naturally into "Let Me Love You Baby," where the band offers a take on "Pretty Thing" that's similarly insinuating, even with the distorted twist of Mohr's guitar at the end.
"Good Advice" is a notable example of the camaraderie permeating Way Down Inside and not just for the group vocalizing on the refrain: the light touch of the lead guitar echoes the blues harp from Chicago bluesman Billy Branch. Then there's the ingenious twist on "The Same Thing," one of Dixon's most inscrutable yet provocative songs, with the spooky arrangement highlighting an ear-catching contrast between Big Head's understated vocal and the cathartic delivery of Erica Brown; this track will never be mistaken for the take on it by latter-day lineups of The Band or the Allman Brothers Band.
In an exhibit of the eternal relevance of the blues, "Crazy Mixed Up World" sounds perfectly pertinent to the current political climate in America, especially in this edgy rendering. Meanwhile, "It Don't Make Sense You Can't Make Peace," atmospheric as it is with such spacious sound quality captured in Boulder's Etown Hall, morphs into a stalwart statement to the powers that be. As on the celebratory "I Want to Be Loved," coupled with a proportionately solemn closer "Sittin and Cryin' the Blues," (the one non-Dixon tune here, written by JB Lenoir) the Big Head Blues Club exhibits its intuitive savvy to recognize the value of saying your piece and moving on, a pragmatic premise the group applies to each of the baker's dozen tracks on Way Down Inside.
Hidden Charms; The Seventh Son; You Need Love; Bring It On Home; Let Me Love You Baby; Pretty Thing; Good Advice; Crazy Mixed Up World; The Same Thing; My Love Will Never Die; It Don't Make Sense You Can't Make Peace; I Want To Be Loved; Sittin' and Cryin' the Blues.
Todd Park Mohr: guitar, vocals; Rob Squires: bass, vocals; Brian Nevin: drums: Jeremy Lawton: keyboards, lap steel; Mud Morganfield: vocals (tracks 3,7, 12); Billy Branch: vocals (tracks 4, 7, 11); Ronnie Baker Brooks: guitar, vocals (tracks 5,7,10,); Erica Brown: vocals (tracks 9, 11).
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