Todd Park Mohr has made quite a transformation. The former “big head” of Big Head Todd and the Monsters, casually welcomed a buzzing crowd at Rams Head On Stage last Friday, dressed in a beige blazer, dad jeans and a pair of black and neon orange running shoes (“I dress to impress,” he’d later say). When he plugged in his electric acoustic guitar and a hands-free microphone headset, I wasn’t sure whether to expect a TED Talk or a Christian summer camp sing-a-long. At first glance, he was decidedly the most uncool, cool guy in the room.
His introduction was brief – he would accept Big Head Todd requests from the audience during the encore only, but explained his entire set would be comprised of old time folk and blues tunes, some of which, he said, “are more than 100 years old.”
The first song, “You Got to Walk That Lonesome Valley,” didn’t blow me away., but Todd got the audience involved early, saying, “You know, this song can be a lot less lonesome…if you all sing along,” and most of the audience happily joined in for the final refrain. It was a nice moment, but my first impression was that Todd was trying to be something he wasn’t, and I assured myself I wouldn’t be easily sold on his new sound.
But, I soon learned Todd wasn’t always sold on the blues either. In fact, it took an entire tour to change his mind. In 2011, Todd’s manager approached him with an idea to do a tour in honor of blues legend/originator Robert Johnson’s 100th birthday. No one else was doing anything to remember Johnson’s legacy as one of America’s most influential musicians, and the manager saw a great opportunity to put Todd’s smooth baritone and expert guitar playing to work. At first, Todd fussed about it and didn’t want to participate.
But, he eventually agreed, and after playing with the likes of BB King, Charlie Musselwhite, and James Cotton, and indulging in the classic music of blues greats like Charlie Patton, Bukka White, and Son House, Todd caught the “blues bug.” Touring as the Big Head Blues Club, he became surprisingly adept at evoking the same deep, throaty growl and staccato string plucking that his long past, new found heroes had made so famous. His Friday night cover of Howlin’ Wolf’s “Back Door Man,” for instance, was scary accurate.
Halfway through the set, Todd broke his own rules, and played a few of his own originals, including “It’s Alright,” (actual footage from the Rams Head show!) and “Blues for Annie,” a fitting song for the setting. The performance was equal parts soothing and powerful. Todd was dripping with sweat around the fifth song. “I could use a towel,” he said to anyone who would listen, brushing the hair back from his forehead. “I’m half-Asian and I like to joke that Asians don’t sweat…It’s not true.”
My favorite song of the night was Todd’s tribute to blues guitarist Hubert Sumlin, titled, “Roll Where You Want.” Todd befriended the late Sumlin (who played guitar with the Howlin’ Wolf himself) soon before his death in 2011 and the blues great left a lasting impression before passing. “He had a profound influence on Jimi Hendrix, Clapton, and others,” Todd said. “The day Hubert died, I wrote this song, and I was asked to sing it at his funeral. I sang it by his graveside and it was one of the proudest moments of my life.”
A few songs later, Todd was finishing his rendition of Bob Dylan’s, “She Belongs To Me,” and I had officially caught the “big head bug.” More so than his musicianship, I was impressed with Todd’s song selection and strong connection with the audience. In a venue like Rams Head On Stage, an artist’s ability to connect intimately with their audience is a key component of every successful concert. Todd covered all his bases, reaching out to fans new and old, taking everyone on a full tour of his foray into blues and folk, all the while aware that he had long-time fans in the building that he had to please. It was a tough task to take on, but Todd was always in full control.
He wrapped up his main set with a song about Bonnie and Clyde, called “Traveling Light,” and stepped off stage for literally one second before returning for an encore. “You know what section we’re in now, right?” he joked, as audience members wildly shouted an assortment of song suggestions. “Bittersweet,” was first up, followed by a cover of Led Zeppelin’s “Tangerine,” and “Monument in Green,” before Todd wrapped up with a funky finale – a cover of “Sexy and I Know It,” by LMFAO. The audience was going wild as Todd sang, “Wiggle wiggle wiggle yeah!”
I think I can definitively say there’s not another artist out there who can start a show with an old gospel tune like “Walk that Lonesome Valley,” and end with “Sexy and I Know It,” but Todd Park Mohr had the whole audience singing along to both. My hat’s off to him, and I can’t wait to see him back at On Stage soon. “Put pressure on management to bring me back here soon…this place is definitely my speed,” he said as he took his final bow.
– Matt Ellis