The Rocky Mountain State's Most Cerebral Road Band Is Comin' To Town.
By Kate McAndrew
FROM A MISSOURI roadstop notching some 10 years' efforts and a cache of miles and shows, Rob Squires, bass player for Big Head Todd and the Monsters (BHTM) calls in for a phone interview--one of six for the day. He and fellow band members Brian Nevin (drums) and Todd Park Mohr (lead guitar and vocals) are mid tour, roughly mid continent, and heading this way.
They've always been a road band, as Squires points out, recalling their laid-to-rest van "the Colonel" (R.I.P. in Nevin's driveway), the four-wheeled recipient of the Purple Heart for interstate bravery. Squires speaks with considered pride, too, of the high-school friendships that have endured and sustained the trio year by year and town by town.
Since steadfastly playing their way from talent shows in the early '80s through the days of Johnny Cash covers--Squires chuckles, recalling their rendition of "Don't Take Your Guns To Town"--into the auspicious wilderness of their 1993 platinum album, Sister Sweetly, and the near-gold Strategem of 1995, they've arrived with this year's Beautiful World, their fifth album. Along the way they launched their own recording label, Big Records, from which they released "Another Mayberry" and "Midnight Radio."
Given a quarter mile of metaphor, you might say their road has been relatively unmapped. As Squires points out, they've done everything "incrementally, when it was the natural time to do it." Like producing their first two records at the behest of inquiring fans. Too, BHTM has had the sincere luxury of measuring its own success in relatively existential terms. Squires exults, "On a daily basis we realize, 'Wow, we're making a living playing music and hanging out with friends--going out on the road and making records.' " He adds there's been no one particular achievement that stands out for the band, and that they tend to view their success as an ongoing process.
But even if they haven't particularly objectified stardom, they're keeping stellar company. They've opened for the likes of The Allman Brothers, Sheryl Crow and (a favorite of Squires') Robert Plant. Squires recalls with a measure of awe in his voice: "There we were, sitting in our little dressing room with our scroungy little deli tray and Robert Plant walks in. It was surreal--standing there talking to the voice of rock and roll, going Is this really happening?"
Production of Beautiful World rendered a more serendipitous cooperation when Big Head's producer, former Talking Head Jerry Harrison, arranged a jam with John Lee Hooker, who was working down the studio hall from BHTM. The result is the vocally rich, collaborative re-recording of the Hooker original, "Boom Boom." Parliament-Funk great Bernie Worell also warms Beautiful World's sound, sitting in on organ.
Mohr's hat size remains a mystery, but BHTM's moniker reportedly pays tribute to other heads of blues and jazz--Eddie "Clean Head" Vinson and Dave "Fat Head" Newman, for example--an audible nod in the BHTM sound, in spite of the band's rock-and-roll entitlement. Similarities to old Clapton, Procol Harem, Led Zeppelin and Los Lobos suggest BHTM's sturdy standing with other blues borrowers.
BHTM's longevity has created a truly gratifying example of journeyman sophistication. "We feel like our experience lies in playing live shows, but I think we're getting better at making records, comments Squires." Mohr has noted that this, their first album in three years, is "broader and harder" than previous releases.
"The material has grown a lot. It's a lot less sentimental and much more direct," he adds. The band took a three-year detour between productions to give Mohr some time to "be inspired again." By the time they went into the studio, notes Squires, "Everyone knew what the goal was."
Indeed, Beautiful World is a dense collection of tightly constructed tracks characterized by their complexity and variety. From the grit-and-goosebumps rock-and-roll downbeat of "Resignation Superman" to the sultry "These Days Without You," Mohr's minor chording and intricate phraseology accelerate this album into the ranks of the truly substantial.
Lyrically, Mohr, as the band's primary songwriter, has always charged his poetry with cultural and philosophical introspection. At first defensive, Squires warms to the the idea that there is what he calls a "subtle and underlying religious content," to the band's compositions, having previously termed BHTM relatively "cerebral." And so they are; still, heartful themes of hope and love and loss figure, too. "We're all a little religious in our own right," he allows.
A road band without a road song ("Nope, no 'Turn the Page' yet," Squires admits), Big Head Todd and the Monsters roll on, a few good friends with a shared vision and a taste for blind curves.
Big Head Todd and the Monsters headline the KFMA-sponsored Rally in the Sun festival on Saturday, May 3, at Rillito Park, First Avenue and River Road. Gates open at 2 p.m. for the all-ages show, featuring Fountains of Wayne, Chronic Future, Frank Lloyd Vinyl, White Chrome Splendor, The Sand Rubies, The Drakes and Lemon Krayola. Tickets are $15 in advance, $20 day-of-show. Call 321-1000 for tickets and information.
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