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.)

Written By: AndrewT

Album Review: Rush Counterparts on SACD

After several delays, Audio Fidelity finally released Rush’s 1993 Counterparts, the band’s 15th studio album, on the remastered SACD format on March 5. It is the sixth Rush studio album tackled by the reproduction company and the first not released in the 24K Gold format. SACD, a super audio CD, is a high resolution, read-only optical audio disc.

Counterparts almost gave Rush their first #1 album if not for that decade’s overhyped grunge movement propelling Pearl Jam’s Vs. to the top. It seems to be an overlooked album not just by fans but the band too. Rush did play two tracks from the album during the 2010 Time Machine tour after more or less dismissing the album since its original release. Strangely, Counterparts feels as though it’s fallen through the cracks much like Vapor Trails.

Let it be said, Counterparts is one of Rush’s finest efforts.

Listening to the 11-track album again for the first time, on the SACD format, felt crisp and unhindered. Whether or not the placebo effect is at play here is anyone’s guess but Neil Peart’s snare and high-hat seemed accentuated more so than the initial release. Kevin “Caveman” Shirley conducted the original recording and made a distinct effort to locate the microphones around Peart’s drum kit for maximum effect. This was evident 20 years ago when Rush fans first heard “Animate.”

Geddy Lee’s voice sounds sharp, is sometimes delicate, and other times refreshingly biting (check out the intro to “Double Agent”). The singing is reminiscent of Lee’s vocals on 1991’s Roll the Bones – perhaps Lee’s finest vocal hour especially when listened to with headphones. On RTB, producer Rupert Hine noted he did not want Lee sounding “shrill” and encouraged him to sing an octave lower. Lee seems to retain much of that lower register on Counterparts but his high notes are masterful particularly on “Everyday Glory.”

Alex Lifeson’s guitar work, especially on the acoustic, tends to stand out a bit better too. Background strumming is a little more clear for instance on “Nobody’s Hero” and his staccato rhythms are notable throughout. “Between Sun and Moon” is a solid performance.

Again, it’s anyone’s guess if the remastered edition does indeed fully transcend the limitations of the original recording however listening to the album in an enclosed space such as a car with a quality audio system does seem to reveal these subtleties. Transferring back and forth between the original and the remastered version is a little useless once your ears have listened to the SACD and you know what to listen for.

However, the re-release of Counterparts hopefully brings backs attention to the album. It is a prog rock masterpiece and features some of Rush hardest and edgiest music from their 90’s catalog with “Animate” and “Stick It Out” and two of the bands most emotionally expressive songs, “Everyday Glory” and “Nobody’s Hero.” The latter saw live action but “Everyday Glory” has yet to be played from the stage.

An album’s final track is often a throwaway for many bands and the final track on the album “Everyday Glory” might be considered banal by some, however we’re talking about Rush (though even the most ardent fan has to admit the band has at least one) and fillers never served a purpose. “Everyday Glory” is one of the band’s best songs. Ever. Peart’s lyrics, Lifeson’s melody and that guitar solo(!), and Lee’s vocals combine to create a harmonious, emotionally filled and intensely uplifting song that I’ll take over “Tom Sawyer” any day of the week.

So is it worth the extra money? The packaging is a step down from the 24k releases. Avid Rush fans pre-ordered the album so unless you fit in that category or consider yourself an audiophile and/or musician who appreciates classic rock performances then you’d be OK with the original recording. Just remember, these CDs are numbered and limited edition, and all of Rush’s other Audio Fidelity releases sold out.

Audio Fidelity’s aim is to reproduce the sound of albums without the irregular plated surfaces of standard aluminum discs. Original mixes played back on a specially constructed playback deck get used in the remastering.

Tracks:

  1. Animate
  2. Stick It Out
  3. Cut To The Chase
  4. Nobody’s Hero
  5. Between Sun and Moon
  6. Alien Shore
  7. The Speed of Love
  8. Double Agent
  9. Leave That Thing Alone
  10. Cold Fire
  11. Everyday Glory

Written By: AndrewT