Big Head Todd and The Monsters, JJ Grey & Mofro
149 Westchester Avenue
Port Chester, NY, 10573
Doors 6:30 PM / Show 7:30 PM
This event is 18 and over
Watch & Listen
Big Head Todd and The Monsters
Big Head Todd and the Monsters are not that big on anniversaries, so there won’t be any big hoopla over the fact that the band is officially crossing the three-decade mark this year. Thirty years would seem like something to commemorate, especially with the same core lineup, an achievement few other name-brand bands can boast of. Yet right now they’re less about celebrating stability than volatility, in the form of their eleventh studio album, New World Arisin’, which makes good on its forward-facing title with what might be the brashest rock and roll of their career. The old world can’t rest on any laurels, and neither will they.
“We’re in a real exciting part of our career right now,” says co-founder Todd Park Mohr. “We’re a viable band with a great audience and we’re able to work at a very high level. It’s a career that’s getting more and more interesting, rather than less, which is remarkable,” he says, chuckling at the unlikelihood of anyone being this cheerfully all-in, this far in. “I mean, 30 years into it, I really feel like: Wow, this is getting fun. I’m learning more about music and about my instrument, and it’s just really engaging in every way. We also dovetail well with the times, I think; I feel like we have something to say.”
That desire to communicate and connect is very much reflected in a new album that explores a variety of subgenres, from the funky (“Trip”) to the unexpectedly punky (“Detonator”), with stops along the way for raging country-rock (“Damaged One”), expansive storytelling in the Van Morrison/early Springsteen mode (“Wipeout Turn”), a Jimi Hendrix cover (“Room Full of Mirrors”), and, in the title track, “New World Arisin’,” a Charley Patton-inspired tune that ended up having what Mohr describes as “a heavy metal/gospel feel.” He doesn’t feel these musical zigzags will give fans musical whiplash. “The fact is, most people, like myself, listen to multiple genres of music, so I don’t think people have a problem with variety. I love it.”
But if there’s a dominant musical motif to New World Arisin’, it’s “straight-up rock-pop,” says Mohr. That contemporary approach might come as a slight surprise to hardcore fans that saw the Monsters take a seriously rootsy turn or two in the last 10 years. The band embarked on a side project, dubbed Big Head Blues Club, that saw them paying homage to Robert Johnson and bringing in venerable guest collaborators like Charlie Musselwhite and the late B.B. King. The heavy blues influence that dominated their alter-ego band carried over some into the last actual Big Head Todd and the Monsters album, 2014’s Black Beehive. That element isn’t altogether missing in New World Arisin’; you’ll certainly hear it recur in “Long Coal Train.” But this time the blues take a definite back seat to the unapologetically mainstream instincts that had Big Head Todd going platinum in the mid-’90s with the album Sister Sweetly, which spawned the rock radio hits “Broken Hearted Savior,” “Bittersweet,” and “Circle.”
“Commercial success is still a goal for me and for our band,” Mohr says, “as far as the sense of communicating to, or striking a chord with a large number of people. We feel like we have something to say and something to offer the culture.” Plus, a true confession: “I’m interested in the pop song! And I think ‘Damaged One,’ for one, is a classic pop song. Our label would have killed for that song, back then,” in the wake of those mainstream radio hits that established the band. “They begged me to write it! So there’s a lot of irony in our coming back to that.”
The history of the group actually stretches farther back from the 1987 point at which they took their name. The core members came together at such an early age that it’s hard to know exactly how many candles to put on their collective cake. “It’s murky,” Mohr says, “because I’ve been playing with Brian (Nevin, their drummer) since junior high school, so the two of us go back to 1982. Brian and I played a talent show with Rob (Squires, the bass player) in 1983, and then we continued to plug at it, at a kids’ pace,” he laughs. They began playing original music in earnest in a nascent Colorado music scene that then consisted almost entirely of cover bands. A debut album, Another Mayberry, arrived in 1989, though it would be another four years before Sister Sweetly made them a national phenomenon. The only personnel change in these three decades has been the addition of a fourth member, putative “new guy” Jeremy Lawton, in 2004.
While they enjoy a robust fan base around the country, their success is outsized in Colorado, where they’re practically the unofficial state band. That’s evident in their ability to sell out Red Rocks, the most revered amphitheater in the nation, where they’ve headlined 19 times. It also comes into play when the band gets asked to be a part of commemorative moments: Mohr recently sang the national anthem at a Rockies game, and the entire band took part in the parade through Denver after the Broncos took the Super Bowl.
Their honors extend beyond their home state and even home country… into space. In 2005, they released the single “Blue Sky,” a tribute to the space program, written at the behest of crew members taking to the heavens aboard the space shuttle Discovery; it was performed years later as a live wake-up call to the astronauts on the shuttle. The song had enough appeal back on earth, too, that it was picked up by the Hillary Clinton campaign in 2008 and used to introduce her keynote speech to the Democratic convention.
That campaign usage didn’t come about as a result of any desire on Mohr’s part to take the band in a political direction. He’s not so interested in getting Big Head Todd and the Monsters caught up in that particular fray as looking at the smaller and bigger pictures, wanting to keep the material topical in some far deeper fashion.
“Our audience is America, and I’m guessing it breaks down to the same percentages the country itself has,” he says. “We’ve never gotten in the business of polarizing people politically. But at the same time, as artists, it’s our job to observe and to hopefully find some insight. I’ve always been interested in the human condition more than politics. Politics are a part of it, but I always look at conflict as personal before it’s political. And I would consider conflict my dominant lyrical theme now— how people are trapped in it, and how conflict relates to intimacy and pleasure.” A Big Head Todd show, in any case, is a place where those conflicts might resolve, or dissolve. “In talking about our apolitical-ness, I think unity is an important thing,” Mohr says. “Being a human being, you have a lot in common with other human beings, and why not maximize those things? Music has an incredible capacity to convey other cultures and times, and to create a lot of empathy and togetherness. There’s harmony in it, and it implies oneness — the root.”
There’s an economy to the songs on the new album, most of which clock in around four minutes, and sometimes even closer to three. You’d think this would make Big Head Todd and the Monsters the farthest thing from a jam band. Yet they have a fervent following among that subset of rock fans, lack of noodling notwithstanding. Maybe it’s because of the changing nature of their set lists, since the Monsters are known to take requests, both in person and online.
“Our focus has always been on serving the song,” Mohr says. “We haven’t historically been that jammy. Which isn’t to say that we don’t have an occasional six-minute number -- we do. But having said that, I have a great respect for that audience, which I think is just a music-loving audience. You know, one year I got invited to the Jammies at Carnegie Hall, and I got in a discussion with somebody: ‘Well, how do you define a jam band?’ And he told me, ‘A jam band doesn’t repeat a song for three shows in a row.’ That was the only way that he would define it. I could almost follow that rule, except there are probably four songs I have to play every night. So I guess those four songs are what’s keeping us from ever being a jam band,” he laughs.
What’s clear is that Big Head Todd is one multi-headed rock monster, easily traversing the most accessible hooks and the heaviest grooves. It’s not surprising that they would appeal to any audience or sub-audience that values durability over flavors of the moment. But Mohr has to laugh when he thinks about how little the possibility of long-term perseverance was on the members’ minds 30 years ago.
“When you form, I think your goal is to make it through the party on Saturday night,” he points out. “In art, longevity isn’t the goal. It’s a happy accident if it happens, and I think ours was one of those convenient accidents that led to a happy marriage. But we happen to get along really well and love being with each other and playing music for a living.” Simple as it may sound, that’s a profound recipe for endurance in both the old world and the new.●
JJ Grey & Mofro
From the days of playing greasy local juke joints to headlining major festivals, JJ Grey remains an unfettered, blissful performer, singing with a blue-collared spirit over the bone-deep grooves of his compositions. His presence before an audience is something startling and immediate, at times a funk rave-up, other times a sort of mass-absolution for the mortal weaknesses that make him and his audience human. When you see JJ Grey and his band Mofro live—and you truly, absolutely must—the man is fearless.
Onstage, Grey delivers his songs with compassion and a relentless honesty, but perhaps not until Ol’ Glory has a studio record captured the fierceness and intimacy that defines a Grey live performance. “I wanted that crucial lived-in feel,” Grey says of Ol’ Glory, and here he hits his mark. On the new album, Grey and his current Mofro lineup offer grace and groove in equal measure, with an easygoing quality to the production that makes those beautiful muscular drum-breaks sound as though the band has set up in your living room.
Despite a redoubtable stage presence, Grey does get performance anxiety—specifically, when he's suspended 50 feet above the soil of his pecan grove, clearing moss from the upper trees.
“The tops of the trees are even worse,” he laughs, “say closer to 70, maybe even 80 feet. I'm not phobic about heights, but I don't think anyone's crazy about getting up in a bucket and swinging all around. I wanted to fertilize this year but didn't get a chance. This February I will, about two tons—to feed the trees.”
When he isn't touring, Grey exerts his prodigious energies on the family land, a former chicken-farm that was run by his maternal grandmother and grandfather. The farm boasts a recording studio, a warehouse that doubles as Grey's gym, an open-air barn, and of course those 50-odd pecan trees that occasionally require Grey to go airborne with his sprayer.
For devoted listeners, there is something fitting, even affirmative in Grey's commitment to the land of his north Florida home. The farms and eddying swamps of his youth are as much a part of Grey's music as the Louisiana swamp-blues tradition, or the singer's collection of old Stax records.
As a boy, Grey was drawn to country-rockers, including Jerry Reed, and to Otis Redding and the other luminaries of Memphis soul; Run-D.M.C., meanwhile, played on repeat in the parking lot of his high school (note the hip-hop inflections on “A Night to Remember”). Merging these traditions, and working with a blue-collar ethic that brooked no bullshit, Grey began touring as Mofro in the late '90s, with backbeats that crossed Steve Cropper with
George Clinton and a lyrical directness that made his debut LP Blackwater (2001) a calling-card among roots-rock aficionados. Soon, he was expanding his tours beyond America and the U.K., playing ever-larger clubs and eventually massive festivals, as his fan base grew from a modest group of loyal initiates into something resembling a national coalition.
Grey takes no shortcuts on the homestead, and he certainly takes no shortcuts in his music. While he has metaphorically speaking “drawn blood” making all his albums, his latest effort, Ol’ Glory, found him spending more time than ever working over the new material. A hip-shooting, off-the-cuff performer (often his first vocal takes end up pleasing him best), Grey was able to stretch his legs a bit while constructing the lyrics and vocal lines to Ol’ Glory.
“I would visit it much more often in my mind, visit it more often on the guitar in my house,” Grey says. “I like an album to have a balance, like a novel or like a film. A triumph, a dark brooding moment, or a moment of peace—that's the only thing I consistently try to achieve with a record.”
Grey has been living this balance throughout his career, and Ol’ Glory is a beautifully paced little film. On “The Island,” Grey sounds like Coleridge on a happy day: “All beneath the canopy / of ageless oaks whose secrets keep / Forever in her beauty / This island is my home.” “A Night to Remember” finds the singer in first-rate swagger: “I flipped up my collar ah man / I went ahead and put on my best James Dean / and you'd a thought I was Clark Gable squinting through that smoke.” And “Turn Loose” has Grey in fast-rhyme mode in keeping with the song's title: “You work a stride / curbside thumbing a ride / on Lane Avenue / While your kids be on their knees / praying Jesus please.” From the profane to the sacred, the sly to the sublime, Grey feels out his range as a songwriter with ever-greater assurance.
The mood and drive of Ol’ Glory are testament to this achievement. The album ranks with Grey’s very best work; among other things, the secret spirituality of his music is perhaps more accessible here than ever before. On “Everything Is a Song,” he sings of “the joy with no opposite,” a sacred state that Grey describes to me:
“It can happen to anybody: you sit still and you feel things tingling around you, everything's alive around you, and in that a smile comes on your face involuntarily, and in that I felt no opposite. It has no part of the play of good and bad or of comedy or tragedy. I know it’s just a play on words but it feels like more than just being happy because you got what you wanted — this is a joy. A joy that doesn’t get involved one way or the next; it just is.”
Grey's most treasured albums include Otis Redding's In Person at the Whisky a Go Go and Jerry Reed's greatest hits, and the singer once told me that he grew up “wanting to be Jerry Reed but with less of a country, more of a soul thing.” With Ol’ Glory, Grey does his idols proud. It's a country record where the stories are all part of one great mystery; it's a blues record with one foot in the church; it's a Memphis soul record that takes place in the country.
In short, Ol’ Glory is that most singular thing, a record by JJ Grey—the north Florida sage and soulbent swamp rocker.
$35/$55 (ADVANCE) $40/$60 (DAY OF SHOW)
This event will have a general admission standing room only floor and a reserved seated Loge and Balcony. Reserved Loge and Balcony tickets will NOT have access to the general admission floor.
18 & over unless accompanied by a parent or legal guardian.