Concert Review: Big Head Todd’s Rhythm and Blues

Big Head Todd and the Monsters meandered through Portland on Friday night playing a nearly three hour show at the Crystal Ballroom. The Boulder, CO quartet played 26 songs to an at best two-thirds filled house. The band spared the crowd from an opening act and played just over an hour before retreating for about a 20-minute intermission and then playing another 80 minutes or so.

Big Head Todd opened with “Midnight Radio” followed by the upbeat “Blue Sky.” “Muhammad Ali” off their 2010 album Rocksteady featured a nice rocking bass intro but much of the first set felt slow and a little lethargic. The crowd finally showed some life once the band played “Bittersweet” off their platinum smash Sister Sweetly. The band celebrates its 20 year release this year. “It’s Alright” and “Broken Heart Savior” also got the nod from that album.

Despite the slow-paced nature of Big Head songs, singer/guitarist Todd Park Mohr is definitely no slouch on the fret board. He can work it and his fingering is mesmerizing. He really knows how to rip up and down the strings. At times it felt like the band wanted to break through the sometimes tediousness of the seemingly 4/4 time set but rockin’ out hard with blazing riffs and pounding drums is not Big Head Todd. Often bluesy, sometimes folk, and a little dab of rockabilly married with rock and roll seems to define this band. The addition of Ronnie Baker Brooks as a second guitarist at the end of the first and second halves added some punch and vigor especially for the band.

Big Head Todd returned for its second set just after 10:30 p.m. but had lost probably 20 percent of the original audience. Once “Broken Hearted Savior” got its due just after 11 p.m. the crowd continued to thin. There’s no doubt Big Head Todd and the Monsters would fare better outdoors or at least at a place with seats and the ability to take a load off. The music is ideal for a cocktail party – relaxing without blasting chords, and the smooth sounds of Mohr’s bass vocals. This is in no way describing Big Head Todd as a backyard band, quite the contrary. This is perfect music, in a perfect setting, with friends and family enjoying your favorite brew or Cabernet. And this was actually evident on Friday night.

Unfortunately, the show’s success certainly rested in part on the venue. The Crystal Ballroom did not deliver its end of the bargain. Does it ever? Historic, yes, but an ideal place to watch live music, no. When sold out it’s stuffy, claustrophobic and hot. On slower ticket sale nights, such  as with Big Head Todd, the audience still has to stand which forces you to deal with people who despite all the open space decide the perfect viewing angle is right in front…of you.

Additionally, the average age of those in attendance was probably mid-40s or higher and even the most ardent fan, after a long week of work, would have a tough time standing for a three-hour show ending at midnight. (Add another 30-60 minutes for early arrivals.) This probably spoke to the crescendoing trickle home effect of the audience members as the show went on. Big Head Todd also competed against even louder music from Lola’s Room on the second floor.

Not many bands these days, especially ones playing in smaller venues, deliver so many songs. It’s not as if Big Head Todd brings two dozen studio albums and 40 years-worth of material. This band likes to play, they play well, and they play well together. It’s refreshing to see the original core line-up in tact too. The band’s live play is well known and in part delivered its cult following. Hearing the band on radio is a rarity and just like other artists with some pedigree its new albums go untouched by DJs. Big Head Todd plays “The Ride Festival” in July in its home state and it might serve them well to continue playing festival to reach a broader audience.

(Note: I don’t have an intact set list, if you have one and would like to share please do so.)