The Phantom Tollbooth

Live Monsters
Artist: Big Head Todd & the Monsters
Label: Giant Records (www.giantrecords.com)
URL: www.bigheadtodd.com
Length: 74:13 minutes / 16 songs

Big Head Todd & the Monsters (BHTM) are a bit of an oddity. Despite a name that suggests a more alternative band, the Monsters play a mix of traditional American music forms (rock, folk, R&B, country and blues) with decidedly modern urgency. They found success on their own terms by recording two independent albums and then booking their own gigs across the country. A significant buzz about this Boulder, Colorado, bar band's blistering live shows eventually enticed the attention of major labels. Their so-called "big break" into the music industry with the 1993 Giant release of Sister Sweetly may have seen them exceed the platinum album threshold, but it hardly made them media darlings or household names. Participating in the H.O.R.D.E tours assuredly helped win them a horde of new fans, but one-hit wonders like the Spin Doctors were more honored by the likes of MTV--and the ongoing comparisons to bands like Blues Traveler and Phish don't neatly fit. Yet over a decade after they started, BHTM continue to create sturdy albums and widen their devoted fan base. In a world of music glutted with disposable bands profiting from the hippest trends, survivors like BHTM rightly transcend the cool flavor of the month.

Long-time friends from their high school days at Columbine High in Littleton, Colorado, the talented trio that makes up the group's core have created their own tight signature sound over the years. Lead singer, guitarist, and principal songwriter, Todd Park Mohr pairs his love for the English language with dangerously sloppy-sounding blues licks pumped up to get your heart pounding. Mohr's gusty guitar assaults are one of the genuinely enthusiastic attractions of their uproarious shows, as full-throttle rockers like "Circle" explosively elucidate. Brian Nevin's powerful pounding on the drum kit is matched by the ambling of Rob Squires' melodic and rowdy bass lines. This trio is aided by touring companions Corey Mauser on keyboards and Hazel Miller on gospel-esque backing vocals. These two extra players generously help the band duplicate the fuller sound of their Beautiful World album in concert, especially the more R&B soaked numbers "Tower" and "If You Can't Slow Down." The reverberation of these combined talents is a live show that closely resembles the quality of their studio recordings, yet exceeds their intense energy many times.

Live Monsters is the band's sixth release, and represents a smattering of live versions of songs from their last four and best-known studio albums. Only their more obscure indie debut, 1989's Another Mayberry, is utterly neglected. Their two most successful albums, Sister Sweetly and 1997's Beautiful World, offer the most songs with six and five, respectively, including credible hits "Broken Hearted Savior" and "Resignation Superman." The two meager highlights from the less-regarded 1994 release, Strategem, are "Kensington Line" and "Poor Miss," and their most acclaimed indie album, Midnight Radio, is represented by the pithy ballad "Vincent of Jersey"
and a smoking rendition of Americana rocker, "The Leaving Song," one of the disc's highest points. There is even an interesting countrified cover of Led Zeppelin's "Tangerine," which the band had previously covered for the Enconium tribute release, and the Monster's trademark version of Johnny Lee Hooker's blues jam "Boom Boom."

Although the live material has been taken from seven different shows over three years of touring, it is pieced together seamlessly here to create a virtual concert representing the best moments BHTM has to offer. Most of the cuts are from an October 1997 show in Austin, Texas, and the others hail from Atlanta, Toledo, Chicago, and Denver, where the band has traditionally played a New Year's Eve show. Fans will undoubtedly feel that personal favorites were not included on this set list, but most of BHTM's best songs are treated to respectable versions sure to please their enthusiasts.

Regarding the inspiration for Mohr's song material, most often relationships are given an honest and hopeful once-over. Though some sexual licentiousness is regrettably suggested and/or advocated, the world view behind these songs is primarily a moral one, mixing a vaguely undefined but friendly spirituality with messages of honorable relationship practices. The world that Mohr writes about is clearly a fallen one where not everything is what it should or could be. Like good and bad times, lovers come and go, but why and how you love remains of utmost importance.

Live Monsters is a smartly packaged sonic snapshot of an established band that, despite a refreshing, energetic and largely unique sound, is still up and coming in popularity. With an accurate selection of their biggest hits to date bolstered with appropriate concert pyrotechnics and featuring poetic, meaningful messages for the sake of love, this is that rare live disc worth purchasing--another accomplishment from that uncommon Colorado band experienced at beating the odds.

Steven Stuart Baldwin   (6/12/99)