Review: Big Head Todd and the Monsters at Red Rocks, 6/10/12

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It didn't take long for Todd Park Mohr to wax nostalgic for the capacity crowd at Red Rocks Amphitheatre on Saturday night. Five songs into his band's nearly two-hour set, the frontman noted that he couldn't remember the last time the group had sold out the venue. He went on to offer a defiant boast, a proud statement of purpose from a veteran of the Colorado music scene. "We're still here after 27 years," Mohr said before the quartet launched into an energetic rendition of "The Moose Song." "We're still here and we got some heat going on."

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Mohr's nod to the band's nearly three-decade history summed up the larger feel of Saturday's show. Big Head Todd and the Monsters delivered forceful live versions of familiar tunes, songs laced with plaintive vocals and driving guitar solos that made the band a favorite of college radio stations in the jam-band heyday of the 1990s.

Since 1986, the band hasn't really altered its basic musical approach -- the set featured the familiar mix of pop-rock song structures and extended stretches of musical improvisation. But the effect of the show went deeper than the setlist. The performance had the spirit of a musical victory lap, a tribute to the die-hard fans who followed the band from college-town concerts in the '80s to national festivals and tours through the '90s and 2000s.

Indeed, old-school fans of the band were in abundance on Saturday, offering an eerie and overwhelming chorus of sing-alongs for nearly every song. It took little effort to find concertgoers in the massive crowd who could go into detail about early shows in Boulder and Fort Collins. Hometown fans sported vintage T-shirts of past tours and predicted a guest appearance by Hazel Miller before she walked onto the stage.

The stage was largely bare for Big Head's set -- apart from the band's instruments, a single screen was the only decoration. Ten minutes before the band kicked off its set, vintage cartoons from a 1970s-era movie theater beamed on the screen; an avuncular narrator encouraged audience members to hit the snack bar and grab some hot dogs before announcing, "It's showtime."

The crowd rose to its feet as soon as the band played the first chords of "Broken Hearted Savior." Mohr established a pattern of guitar prowess from the first tune, delivering a powerful set of solos in tunes like "Blue Sky" and "Resignation Superman." Jeremy Lawton's keyboard lines had the feel of gospel piano, while the rhythm section of Brian Nevin and Rob Squires laid down a bluesy foundation for Mohr's emotive lead on vocals and guitar. Indeed, the influence of the band's recent tribute to Robert Johnson was clear in the stripped-down, bluesy feel of the entire set.

That quality was even more pronounced with the arrival of Hazel Miller, who joined the band for renditions of songs like "Please Don't Tell Her" and "It's Alright." Miller lent her expansive, emotional strains for the choruses, and offered a jaw-dropping vocal outro for "It's Alright." The band seemed to gain confidence and energy from the constant chorus of sing-alongs and the manic energy in the crowd as the show progressed.

Mohr's vocals picked up intensity for lines like "Sweet Jesus I'm a broken man" in the rendition of "Heart of Wilderness," Lawton delivered a powerful lap steel solo during "The Moose Song" and the band gelled powerfully for a rendition of "Bittersweet" that drove the crowd nuts. That momentum only seemed to pick up as the group played until well after 11 p.m.

While the four-piece showed marks of its most recent studio tribute to Robert Johnson in its performance, this show was all about Big Head Todd and the Monsters' own history. It was a celebration of a hometown hero, a nod to the influence of a Colorado band on the wider musical landscape of the 1980s and 1990s. The impact was powerful and transporting, even for those who hadn't been there to witness the effect firsthand.

Earlier in the evening, the Barenaked Ladies mix of humor, nostalgia and crowd-pleasing pop hits set a fitting mood for the headliners and made for a surreal form of musical time travel. It felt like Friends was still on the air, like the college alt-rock of the '90s was just hitting its stride. The Canadian quartet opened with "Too Little Too Late," but it didn't take them long to dig deeper into its older catalogue. Songs like "The Old Apartment" and "It's All Been Done" summoned the group's early power pop efforts, as did "One Week" and "If I Had $1000000." Those chestnuts came along with newer tunes like "Easy" and "Sound of Your Voice."

The outfit switched up instrumentation, taking stints on acoustic and electric guitars, synthesizers, bongos, an accordion and a standup bass. The set included the act's familiar brand of comedy and theatrics, including an improvised hip-hop jam with lyrics about Red Rocks and Big Head Todd created on the spot by Robertson. The entire crowd was on its feet by the time the band launched into "Brian Wilson" and then ended its set with a mash-up of pop covers, including sloppy excerpts from Gotye's "Somebody That I Used to Know," Alphaville's "Forever Young" and Journey's "Don't Stop Believing." The medley felt a bit like musical pandering, but the crowd ate it up.


Personal Bias: Mohr's constant rounds of ambitious and aerobic guitar solos were the musical high point of the evening.

Random Detail: Barenaked Ladies' Ed Robertson joked that Red Rocks was in danger of becoming "Green Rocks" because of moss growth. Later, he joked he smelled the pungent aroma of "skunk burning."

By the Way: Hazel Miller has a damn impressive set of pipes. Her outro on "It's Alright" brought the crowd to its feet.

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