Big Head Todd and the Monsters may not be one of the names that leap to mind when discussing the early history of the modern jamband festival scene. Yet, when you look back on the old, grainy, Zapruder footage of the mid-90s H.O.R.D.E. festivals, Todd Park Mohr’s Colorado-based trio (now a quartet) doesn’t come across as a fuzzy blur in an off-center grassy knoll. Alongside Blues Traveler, Widespread Panic and a pre-Derek Trucks Allman Brothers Band, Big Head Todd & The Monsters were among one of the main draws of the 1993 and 1994 versions of the jamband world’s influential answer to Lollapalooza. At New York City’s Irving Plaza (mercifully nee Fillmore), BHT revisited their early days offering the fans that grew with them a real treat: Midnight Radio, their finest album, in its entirety.
[Photo by C. Taylor Crothers]
The only thing keeping the full album gimmick from having a renaissance is the fact that it may never have had a heyday. As it stands now, the results are mixed. When Bruce Springsteen breaks out The Wild, The Innocent & The E Street Shuffle at Madison Square Garden, the event can become awash in the warm glow of revisionist nostalgia where everyone remembers the album being successful upon its release. When Peter Frampton takes Frampton Comes Alive out on the road, it makes fine business sense. When The Spin Doctors resurrect Pocket Full of Kryptonite (and themselves) at the Bowery Ballroom, it becomes kitschy fun for a finely-hewed target audience. When Evan Dando decides to perform The Lemonheads’ It’s A Shame About Ray at the Knitting Factory, it reeks of desperation and begs intervention. (In all fairness, you could interchange The Spin Doctors and Evan Dando in those last two sentences and still maintain an acceptable semblance of journalistic accuracy).
An interesting marriage of the home listening and live concert experiences, it has to be bittersweet for an artist to use an album from their distant past as a successful selling point for a show. On one hand, reconnecting with a collection of songs that presumably found an audience and helped launch or sustain a career can be pretty special for both an artist and their audience. On the other, artists grow; devoting a night to putting an album on a pedestal that an artist may very well have outgrown may not quite be the vision. Big Head Todd would likely fall into the former category. Over more than two decades together, they’ve never hesitated to populate their set lists with cuts from Midnight Radio and rare is the show that doesn’t include Bittersweet.
The perfect soundtrack for a relaxing, contemplative late summer drive on a wide open road with the convertible top down, Big Head Todd recorded half of Midnight Radio live on stage and the other half in basements and living rooms throughout Boulder, Colorado. Where their recent material is more pronouncedly blues-based, BHT’s early days showed off their proclivity for meditative rock in the mold of John Hiatt and John Prine. More than two decades later, the album remains the best compendium of the laid back sound upon which they built their following.
At Irving Plaza, Mohr, Rob Squires (bass), Brian Levin (drums) and Jeremy Lawton (keyboards) faithfully, though perfunctorily, recreated their 1990 breakthrough effort, the only changes really being the addition of Lawton, who was not part of the Midnight Radio recording sessions. Commencing the evening with a sing-along version of Vincent of Jersey, Big Head Todd ambled through amiable, jangling tunes like The Moose Song, The Leaving Song and Dinner With Ivan and moody, guitar reveries like Midnight Radio, Love, Betsy and City On Fire. The Midnight Radio portion of the evening closed with its trio of achingly contemplative songs – Monument In Green, Ann Arbor Grandfather and Elvis – showcasing Mohr’s ability to wring naked emotion out of a song with not much more than a guitar and his warm voice. Having presented the album without annotation, Mohr acknowledged the applause as they segued the album’s untitled Barry White inflected outro groove into the rest of the set, which touched upon selections from their Robert Johnson 100th birthday project and featured Broken Hearted Savior, their arena-rockiest anthem.
Very rarely does the music industry put much attention into releases between Thanksgiving and the New Year, although 2011 had the rare exception of The Black Keys album dropping in December. While January usually has a surfeit of albums that have been held back, this year, only two seemed generally noteworthy.
As the lead singer and main songwriter of The Hold Steady, Craig Finn has forged an image as a beer-soaked poet, a fervent preacher chronicling the reckless indiscretions of youth with the flair of Kerouac and the empathy of Springsteen. On Clear Heart Full Eyes, Finn’s first solo album, he lowers the volume, tones down the wordplay and keeps the wry irony to a minimum. Honolulu Blues, the album’s first single, holds steadiest to what most would expect from Finn. Jackson could be a lost chapter from one of his band’s earlier efforts and where Finn once lionized Joe Strummer in Constructive Summer, he shows recent reverence towards Freddie Mercury and Johnny Rotten on No Future. Familiar themes reemerge, most notably the looming presence of religion. While the characters that populate many of Finn’s songs constantly beseech the help of a higher power, on Clear Heart Full Eyes, Finn speaks a bit more directly on the subject. Fret not, he hasn’t lost his sense of humor nor does he proselytize. Rather, he happily sings about his new friend whose name is surprisingly not Tebow on New Friend Jesus.
In a little more than a year, Cleveland teenager Dylan Baldi has grown up quickly. On the Cloud Nothings first album, where he played all the instruments, Baldi voiced the confusion and befuddlement of youth with punchy, indie-pop guitar riffs. Since then is appears that Baldi has looked deep in to the abyss and had a sadgasm of epically Cobainish proportion. On Attack On Memory, Baldi sure seems like he spent quality time with his Nirvana records, possibly cutting it with some Strokes and pre-Doherty implosion Libertines. In retreating into ’90s grunge, he couldn’t have chosen a better producer than Steve Albini, who submerges Baldi’s maturing yet still moderately whiny vocals into the mix. Stay Useless hews closest to the Cloud Nothings that you are used to hearing but the ability to play with other musicians has exponentially broadened Baldi’s range. The greatest revelation on Attack On Memory is Baldi’s breakthrough as a guitarist, not yet a virtuoso, he does show remarkable taste and fluidity on Separation and Wasted Days. It’s within Baldi’s power to be the toast of Cleveland. As long as he doesn’t hold a press conference on MTVU and announce that he’s taking his talents to Williamsburg.
Chuck Klosterman managed to stir a little controversy with his Grantland column in which he kind of professed to researching his article on Merrill Garbus and TuneYards on Wikipedia. Lost within the reaction was the fact that the article really didn’t have much to do with either of them and the reaction to his misperceptions of Garbus and w h o k i l l kind of proved his point. Using TuneYards as an example of the type of critically beloved artist that the Internet can’t help but put on a pedestal and overly praise, he pointed out what a curse such love can become. In noting that an artist that fails to live up the unfairly raised expectations rashly and abruptly thrust upon them only serves to catalyze the backlash and self-mockery by those who purportedly misidentified genius, he wasn’t exactly foreseeing Garbus’ future as much as using her as an example. It’s an interesting point that’s getting drowned out by those taking Klosterman to task for failing to acknowledge Garbus’ genius and possibly proving his point. It’s as if everyone’s forgotten the days when tapes ‘n tapes, Wolfmother and MGMT were going to carry music into the next millennium.
What exactly was the pitch for Masked And Anonymous? “Bob Dylan has written an incomprehensible screenplay about a benefit concert in a totalitarian propaganda-driven state that unfolds like a paranoid peyote vision formed out of Dylan’s spin on his own Confucian prophecies and worldview. For symbolism, we kill a music journalist named Friend with an acoustic guitar. Want to be in it?” Given the star power on screen, it must have worked. Why don’t they try it again? Claim it’s directed by David Lynch and you have something no less unintelligible than Inland Empire.