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Blues at the Crossroads w/ Big Head Todd and the Monsters @ Potawatomi Bingo Casino

March 4, 2011

Mar. 7, 2011
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If blues is best experienced communally, Friday's "Blues at the Crossroads" tribute show at the Potawatomi Bingo Casino's Northern Lights Theater was a success by that criterion alone. The music's cathartic joy was palpably felt both on the stage and in the seats.

Never mind that the tour is supposed to be a tribute to that most storied of bluesmen, Robert Johnson. Not much of his repertoire was touched by the assembly of acts Friday. Instead, Johnson contemporary/survivor David "Honeyboy" Edwards, Hubert Sumlin, Michael Frank, Lightnin' Malcolm & Cedric Burnside and the evening's de facto house band, Big Head Todd and the Monsters, celebrated the genre's history, with an emphasis on the role of the guitar in it all.

Malcolm came off as most volubly appreciative of the work of the man the tour intends to celebrate. An extra large, young white dude with a Mississippi drawl as deep as his smile is wide (read: very), he spoke of reacquainting himself with Johnson's work on the tour bus. Assaying numbers by Johnson influences Son House and Willie Brown, his National steel guitar playing was incisive and his voice was resonant with an admirable moaning quality. He and his lankier singer/drummer duo partner Burnside worked up a froth of funkiness that made for one of the night's many times one might have wished Northern Lights was better equipped for dancing.

Burnside, the grandson of legendary trance bluesman R.L. Burnside, often acted as second drummer alongside the Monsters, behind the bevy of singers and players. Doubling up on that instrument gave much of the night's music a New Orleans second-line rhythmic feel.

Big Head Todd frontman Todd Park Mohr, not especially noted as a blues player in his day gig, acquitted himself respectably, from opening with an acoustic reading of "John the Revelator" to joining everyone with a voice to spare on "Wang Dang Doodle" not long before the encore.

The major, even historical, draws of the "Crossroads," however, were old-timers Edwards and Sumlin. At 95 and 79 respectively, both needed to sit down—Sumlin with an oxygen tank—before doing their things. But once they did, Edwards' serpentine and Sumlin's more gregarious charms shone through about as strongly as if they were playing a South Side Chicago club a half-century earlier. Frank's harmonica support of both veterans added an enticing wheeze to the surfeit of plucked, strummed and bent strings.

It's safe to call "Blues at the Crossroads" a success—even if Johnson was a bit lost in the shuffle.


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