Big Head Todd and the Monsters – Black Beehive (2014)

Big Head Todd and the Monsters burst onto to the live-music scene in the late 1980s with a heady sound best described as blues-based, loose and laid-back pop.

More recently, however, they have been focused more on the rootsier sounds of Todd Park Mohr’s adopted hometown of Chicago. That included BHTM’s terrific 2011 release 100 Years of Robert Johnson, which featured B.B. King, Charlie Musselwhite and Ruthie Foster — as well as Hubert Sumlin and David “Honeyboy” Edwards, both of whom have since passed.

As enjoyable as that excursion deeper into one element of the Big Head Todd and the Monsters aesthetic no doubt was, it also seemed like the kind of thing that could well have boxed them in. The Steve Jordan-produced Black Beehive, however, quickly allays those fears. Mohr, Brian Nevin, Rob Squires and Jeremy Lawton return to the group’s laidback, jazz-inflected persona without losing their heightened awareness of the blues.

The results feel like a deeper, more emotional version of what made Big Head Todd and the Monsters such a concert favorite from the start.

There’s a topical feel to Black Beehive, as Mohr delves into issues both large (the Arab Spring uprisings, in “We Won’t Go Back”; the recent economic meltdown, in “Fear, Greed and Ignorance”) and small (Amy Winehouse’s sudden death, in the title track) — but also a personal one, as Mohr explores the wonders outside our world (“Everything About You”), and life’s strange coincidences (“Forgive Me Bonnie”).

True, the album makes a series of references to the Windy City’s legacy music: “Hubert’s Dream” was written for Sumlin, and “Hey Delila” for Memphis Minnie. Eddie Shaw, the longtime Howlin’ Wolf sideman also guests. But Black Beehive never strays too far off into any one direction so as to seem unfocused.

For those who remember BHTM best for their fun-loving days as a Colorado-based road warriors, there’s the comedy of “I Get Smooth,” which contrasts nicely with grittier fare like “Seven State Lines.” Meanwhile, “Travelin’ Light” and “Josephina” work in similar juxtaposition — showcasing Mohr’s storytelling gift on the one hand, and his ability to make strikingly intimate admissions on the other. It’s a rare accomplishment, really: Even as Big Head Todd and the Monsters have dug deeper into their roots, the music continues reaching for new things.

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Nick DeRiso

Nick DeRiso has also explored music for publications like USA Today, Gannett News Service, All About Jazz and Popdose for nearly 30 years. Honored as newspaper columnist of the year five times by the Associated Press, Louisiana Press Association and Louisiana Sports Writers Association, he oversaw a daily section that was named Top 10 in the nation by the AP in 2006. Contact him at nderiso@somethingelsereviews.com.