Feb 222011

More myth than man, Robert Johnson influenced countless musicians with his brand of haunting country blues. The Rolling Stones, Led Zeppelin, Jimi Hendrix and Eric Clapton all cite Johnson as a key influence in their musical development, and four of his songs (“Sweet Home Chicago”, “Cross Road Blues”, “Hellhound on My Trail” and “Love in Vain”) appear on the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame’s list of songs that shaped rock and roll. Pretty impressive for a guy who recorded under 30 songs over 2 sessions in 1936-37 and died at 27 – yes, he started that trend too.

To celebrate the 100th anniversary of his birth, Big Head Todd and The Monsters have augmented their lineup with an all-star cast of blues musicians to record 100 years of Robert Johnson. B.B. King, Honeyboy Edwards and Hubert Sumlin (guitarist for Howlin’ Wolf) all turn up, among others. The result is toe-tapping, but ultimately somewhat unsatisfying.

To be fair, strong performances abound. Lightnin’ Malcolm’s bottleneck tears through “If I Had Possession Over Judgement Day,” backing a surprisingly strong vocal from the 95 year-old Edwards. Lead vocalist Todd Park Mohr and Ruthie Foster intertwine nicely on “Kind Hearted Woman,” giving a different, cross-gender nuance to the song. The band also does not forget that Johnson was an acoustic guitarist, exploring this oft-forgotten aspect of Johnson’s work on tracks like “All My Love is Love in Vain”.

Where the album falters is in the production. In listening to Johnson’s originals you can hear the frantic tone of his voice, and desperation in his guitar – as if he hears the devil one step behind, ready to pounce. This album sounds warm, laid-back and almost cozy. All of the edges are smoothed out, suppressing the dark soul that makes Johnson’s music resonate and fascinate. “Come On In My Kitchen”, for example, has a nice groove, but has lost the sexual menace that dominates the original. The album needed a cauldron of hellfire, not a spoonful of sugar.

100 Years of Robert Johnson Tracklist (special guests in parentheses):
01. Come On In My Kitchen (Charlie Musselwhite)
02. Ramblin’ On My Mind (Lightnin’ Malcolm, Cedric Burnside)
03. When You Got A Good Friend (Hubert Sumlin, Ruthie Foster, Lightnin’ Malcolm)
04. Cross Road Blues (B.B. King)
05. Preachin’ Blues (Lightnin’ Malcolm, Cedric Burnside)
06. Kind Hearted Woman (Ruthie Foster, Lightnin’ Malcolm)
07. If I Had Possession Over Judgement Day (Lightnin’ Malcolm, Honeyboy Edwards,
Cedric Burnside)
08. Last Fair Deal Gone Down (Charlie Musselwhite)
09. All My Love Is Love In Vain
10. Sweet Home Chicago (Honeyboy Edwards, Charlie Musselwhite)

Find more on Big Head Blues Club here.

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