Celebrating the legacy of a bluesman
In celebrating the centennial of Robert Johnson’s birth, a superb musical collective traced the bluesman’s legacy from its humble beginnings to meteoric impact during a moving and wildly entertaining show Friday at the Berklee Performance Center.
Guitarist and singer Todd Mohr anchored the proceedings, and his mates from Big Head Todd and the Monsters filtered among a cast that also included Delta blues upstarts Cedric Burnside & Lightnin’ Malcolm, venerated elders Hubert Sumlin and David “Honeyboy’’ Edwards, and the celebrant’s grandson Steven Johnson.
Mohr seemed an odd choice to lead the road show dubbed “Blues at the Crossroads: The Robert Johnson Centennial Concerts,’’ as his music has never been particularly connected to the root of blues. But he quickly dispelled doubts by opening the concert with convincing solo performances of “John the Revelator’’ and “Stones in My Passway.’’
The “Crossroads’’ tour aptly displayed the dynamic nature of Johnson’s work, which has powered everything from solo folk artists to flamboyant rock bands.
The so-called Big Head Blues Club band grew in size through “Kind Hearted Woman Blues,’’ which introduced the electrifying guitar prowess of Lightnin’ Malcolm, and “Come on in My Kitchen,’’ blown up with two drummers, two electric guitars, keys, and bass.
Singer Steven Johnson celebrated his grandfather’s legacy with hearty versions of “If I Had Possession Over Judgment Day’’ and “Milk Cow Blues,’’ songs that stake the blues’ opposing spiritual and salacious poles. Johnson and Mohr drove the concert to a frenetic peak as they traded verses on “Traveling Riverside Blues’’ atop Malcolm’s slithering slide-guitar work.
The show’s second half featured Sumlin and Edwards. A contemporary of Johnson’s, the 95-year-old Edwards stirred the crowd with “Sweet Home Chicago.’’ Sumlin, Edwards, and Malcolm teamed on Honeyboy’s “Won’t You Ride With Me’’ for pure blues juju.
Sumlin shifted the concert’s focus onto his former boss Howlin’ Wolf, as the band chugged through “Smokestack Lightning,’’ “Wang Dang Doodle’’ and others, careful not to crowd the 79-year-old’s angular guitar tone.
The show ended with a rousing ensemble reading of “I Believe I’ll Dust My Broom,’’ effectively celebrating — rather than overanalyzing — a musical icon.
Scott McLennan can be reached at email@example.com.