If you go
What: Big Head Todd and the Monsters in concert.
When: 8 p.m. March 29 for those 21 and older.
Where: McMenamins Crystal Ballroom, 1332 W. Burnside St., Portland.
Cost: $25 to $27 through Cascade Tickets, 800-514-3849 or cascadetickets.com
Information: 503-225-0047 or crystalballroompdx.com
Todd Park Mohr, frontman of Big Head Todd and the Monsters, was never a stranger to the blues. That influence has run through the group’s music ever since its first album, 1989’s “Another Mayberry.”
But in recent years, Mohr’s relationship with the blues has changed dramatically — so much so, that he now feels like he isn’t merely influenced by the genre, he’s a part of the blues. And Mohr, in a recent phone interview, said the new Big Head Todd and the Monsters studio album, “Black Beehive,” is directly influenced by his deepening knowledge and understanding of blues.
The change can be traced back to a 2011 album, “100 Years Of Robert Johnson,” an album on which Big Head Todd and the Monsters collaborated with blues legends David “Honeyboy” Edwards and Huburt Sumlin (long-time guitarist for Howlin’ Wolf) — under the billing of the Big Head Blues Club — to create fresh interpretations of songs by Delta blues pioneer Robert Johnson.
Edwards and Sumlin also joined Big Head Todd and the Monsters on a tour in support of the album. Spending time with the two bluesmen, who have both since passed away, remains a treasured memory for Mohr.
“It was enormously important to me, both musically and personally, psychologically. They ended up being father figures to me,” Mohr said. “It was really kind of remarkable because, well, Honeyboy was 95 at the time and Hubert was 80. So they had an awful lot to share. They were pretty lonely guys, kind of struggling with health and at their age, to still be working for a living is a pretty serious commitment to what they’re doing. I had a lot of opportunity to stay up all night and listen to them tell stories.
“Like many elderly people, they just love recalling the past and being able to share it with younger people. So it was a real mentorship situation, and surprisingly for me, it just is that direct connect with what happened with history, with American history really, in such a personal and visceral way, to connect personally with the blues and the pains of the blues and the beginnings of so much of what characterizes America, through their experience.”
On a strictly musical level, the Big Head Blues Club project was just as profound, introducing Mohr to an earlier era of blues that he had never explored and opening the door to new approaches in songwriting that have reshaped the sound of Big Head Todd and the Monsters on “Black Beehive.”
“It forced me to woodshed Robert Johnson’s material, which I hadn’t done before. But it also opened me to a whole different way of looking at music,” Mohr said. “One of the big things for me that had great appeal was the lack of the commercial structures of traditional pop songwriting. That was really a liberating thing for me because I kind of spent my career in the shadows of ‘Sister Sweetly’ and I was kind of trying to duplicate that success as a writer. It just kind of felt hollow to me after awhile.”
“Sister Sweetly” was the third Big Head Todd and the Monsters album — and first major label effort. Released in 1993, it produced hit singles in “Broken Hearted Savior” and “Bittersweet,” and briefly gave Mohr and his original bandmates, bassist Rob Squires and drummer Brian Nevin a taste of the rock star life.
The group wasn’t able to muster another major hit single, but the group (which now also includes keyboardist Jeremy Lawton) has built a sizable audience that likes the band for its entire album catalog rather than a couple of radio hits.
With “Black Beehive,” Mohr feels he has entered a new phase as a songwriter — one that is strongly influenced by what he learned in exploring early Delta blues for the Big Head Blues club project.
It shows in the music. Where preceding Big Head Todd and the Monsters albums had a rock sound that seemed as informed by a soul influence as the electric Chicago blues of the 1950s forward, the new album has a deeper, earthier blues accent.
Here, songs like “Seven State Lines,” “We Won’t Go Back,” “Hey Delilah” and “Everything About You” are powered by strong rhythmic grooves and rumbling bass lines that ride below some tangy guitar work and gritty vocal melodies.
Those hard-hitting songs are balanced by several ballads (“Travelin’ Light,” “I Get Smooth” and the title track) that have a folk-blues accent that very much echoes the early Delta blues.
Big Head Todd and the Monsters (who are joined by guitarist Ronnie Baker Brooks and long-time guest vocalist Hazel Miller on its current tour) will have plenty of time to weave the new songs into its show, considering it’s a two-set performance with no opening act.
“Personally I really love conceptually, and I think our fans do, too, not having another group kind of setting the stage for us,” Mohr said. “So that’s kind of a nice thing to really dominate the evening, just like artistically. And I think our fans enjoy seeing more of what they paid for.”