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Posted on Thu, Feb 10, 2011 : 11:52 p.m.

Blues legends David "Honeyboy" Edwards, Hubert Sumlin highlights of "Blues at the Crossroads" concert

By Will Stewart

In the 100 years since Robert Johnson was born, countless musical crimes have been perpetrated against the blues.

No small number of those were committed Thursday at Hill Auditorium during “Blues at the Crossroads: The Robert Johnson Centennial Concert,” an oddly conceived, exasperatingly executed and frustratingly flatfooted “celebration” of the blues and its spiritual forefather.


From left: David "Honeyboy" Edwards plays guitar and sings with Steve "Lightnin'" Malcolm on guitar and Michael Frank on harmonica during "Blues at the Crossroads: The Robert Johnson Centennial Concert" at Hill Auditorium on Thursday night.

Angela J. Cesere |

Thank goodness for two legitimate blues legends — David "Honeyboy" Edwards, the 95-year-old exemplar of the delta blues and a contemporary of Johnson, and Hubert Sumlin, Howlin Wolf’s longtime guitar player — for lending a modicum of credibility to what was otherwise a tin-eared commemoration of Johnson's 100th birthday.

(Johnson, or course, didn't live to see his own 28th birthday, having presumably been poisoned to death by a lover's jealous husband or, more legendarily, claimed by the Devil after bartering his soul for mastery of the guitar. Either way, they could have used him on Thursday.)

Todd Park Mohr, who, along with his band, Big Head Todd and the Monsters, served as ringleader and house band for the show, must ultimately carry the blame for its failure. Mohr appeared to have little if any feel for the blues.

That was apparent from the start when he appeared on stage alone with a resonator guitar and stumbled his way through two Johnson numbers, as well as one by Johnson’s old mentor, Son House. From the start, it was clear that Mohr’s musical reach exceeded his grasp, as he clumsily felt his way through Johnson’s intricate fingerpicking patterns.

Things improved somewhat with the arrival onstage of guitarist Lightnin’ Malcolm and drummer Cedric Burnside, the grandson of the late Mississippi bluesman R.L. Burnside. The pair blasted through some Sterno-fueled blues that would have done the elder Burnside proud, finding just the right balance of Telecaster grit and percussive muscle.

Edwards, though frail, still packs a wallop, both as a vocalist and for his ability to pull off a snaky slide run that can raise the hair on one’s arms. His duet with Malcolm on Johnson’s “Sweet Home Chicago” lent new, earthy life to what has become a tired standard. But when Mohr replaced Malcolm as Edward’s sideman the wheels mostly came off and Edwards was left exposed as Mohr seemed to struggle to find the changes.

Sumlin, despite relying on an oxygen, played his Stratocaster like a man half his 79 years, recreating some the licks he created that have become part of the blues canon, like the recurring theme on “Smokestack Lightnin’ ” and the spidery fingerpicking on “Sitting on Top of the World.”

Unfortunately, after just a handful of tunes apiece, Sumlin and Edwards were gone and Mohr, Malcom, Burnside and the Monsters wound down the rest of the main set, culminating with a pointless, mid-tempo maunder though Johnson’s signature tune, “Crossroads Blues.”

It’s not an exaggeration to say that at that very moment, on at least a dozen open stages across Metro Detroit, the blues were being performed with more feeling and more authenticity by people with day jobs.

Edwards and Sumlin were back for a brief, two-song encore, but even their considerable charms weren’t enough to salvage what could have been — what should have been — a spirited and informative musical birthday party.

Will Stewart is a free-lance writer who covers music for


joe grimley

Tue, Feb 15, 2011 : 9:12 p.m.

Too bad the freelancer who wrote the article wasn't held to the rules of civility which commentators are asked to observe. He began by calling the performance a crime, and followed with a litany of further insults, none of them constructive. The gratuitous negativity nearly stopped me from finishing the rant, but I plowed through with the help of a couple of bourbons. Despite a few compelling rebuttals from civilized commentators, I need to chime in on a few points. (Note that the extent to which I can shed light on the freelancer's misinformation is severely limited by this format.) Todd Mohr has never implied he has the skills of Robert Johnson. Most of us did not expect Mr. Johnson's reincarnation at Hill. The freelancer's obsession with this impossibility was in no way insightful. It's like watching Paxson hit a championship- winning shot (1993) and then publicly berating him 'cuz he ain't no Jordan. I attended the Hill gig with several musicians, including 3 guitarists, one of whom who has toured extensively with Cedric Burnside. None of my strumming pals was miffed that Mr. Mohr wasn't raised on the Delta. We visited with Mr. Burnside and Mr. Malcolm after the show, and they were both delighted to be part of this tour. Would 2 "authentic" cats take the stage with someone who was murdering the legacy of the music they dearly love? (Hint to freelancer: "no".) Finally, the freelancer ignored perhaps the biggest issue while furiously pounding his keyboard with his blinders in battle mode. Without Mr. Mohr's passion and leadership, how many folks, perhaps many new fans of Delta Blues, would be denied the chance to see legends like Mr. Edwards and Mr. Sumlin? Based on Thursday night, about 3,500 in Southeast Michigan alone. Mr. Mohr and UMS should be commended for giving us the privilege of witnessing history at Hill.


Sat, Feb 12, 2011 : 9:51 p.m.

Looks like my comment got truncated. It was supposed to end something like... And that's the beauty of art. It challenges us to examine and repeatedly define what matters to us. In this sense, the concert was a success (as was this review); certainly, I'm glad I was there.

joe grimley

Tue, Feb 15, 2011 : 9:58 p.m.

This was a well-articulated rebuttal to the article. Thanks for your insights.


Sat, Feb 12, 2011 : 8:31 p.m.

Having sat 'up close' in row E center, I'd agree with a checkered assessment of the event overall -- each player (and I'd emphasize ALL of them here) had strong and weak moments. What's revealing to me is the discussion, especially words such as "legitimate" and "authenticity." These do more harm than good; they silence rather than engage. Blues is at the core of American music. Every artist from Robert Johnson and Honeyboy Edwards, Muddy Waters, Elvis, Janis Joplin, Wynton Marslis, ZZ Top, and William Bolcom engages the Blues. Blues makes American music distinctive and vibrant, whether realized in rock, jazz, folk, country, pop, or classical styles. Here we can consider the blues a form or, more interesting--a set of values, practices, and traditions. What I witnessed on Thursday night was American music -- this tradition -- in process. An older generation schooled younger artists who honored and revered their instructors while performing their own visions of what the blues means today in and well outside the Mississippi Delta. Certainly, one could define the Blues in a more restrictive sense, and maybe that's what some commentators would prefer. Yet the concert title was "Blues at the Crossroads," and those crossing roads lead to and draw from a variety of musical influences which extend far beyond the Delta and far beyond August 16, 1938 when (tragically) a too young Robert Johnson passed. It's a mistake to hear the old masters as "authentic" and infallible, just as it is to hear the young guns as impotent. The verb "to hear" is key, as it has more to do with reception than the performance. To consider any American music "legitimate" or "authentic" is to deny the messy processes which brought it to life. Music in the U.S. is by definition hybrid. For me anyway, American music is great because of this mess. For some, Thursday's concert "rocked," for others it rolled. And that's the beaut

Evan Blanchard

Sat, Feb 12, 2011 : 4:47 p.m.

Having listened repeatedly to Johnson's recordings of "Kindhearted Woman Blues," "Sweet Home Chicago," and several others leading up to and following the concert, Mohr's renditions were impressively stylistic for the most part, especially in the vocals. He does not play guitar like Johnson, but he sang in the same range with an extremely similar timbre, and I have not yet heard any critique of the "feeling" he put into it (from the comments) that has not amounted to either racism or stereotyping. As far as Mr. Stewart's article, it seems like he had all of his thoughts in mind before the concert started. Malcolm and Burnside were fantastic, and to say that things "improved somewhat" when they came out paints a completely inaccurate picture of both Mohr and this duo. And while Edwards and Sumlin were impressive for their ages, there were plenty of problems with their performances from a purely musical perspective. Sumlin's guitar playing had its shining moments, but also its dull ones, and Edwards sang the blues with all the feeling and history he brings to it, but his voice did disintegrate on the last song he sang during his first appearance. It sounded like Bob Dylan on a bad day--because Edwards is 95. I thought Edwards was great. But I am saying that it is completely contradictory to contrast him with the younger performers in the way that Mr. Stewart did. I think to exalt the veterans and denigrate the other performers is to completely ignore the actual sounds that were emanating from the stage.

Josh Edwards

Fri, Feb 11, 2011 : 8:08 p.m.

I totally agree with WM1. Dr. Bruce Conforth (who introduced the show last night and is shown standing - unidentified - in the first photo on this slide show) played a blistering tribute to Johnson at the UMS monday night event at Cobblestone Farm. From slide to fingerpicking his acoustic guitar playing would have been a much more appropriate accompaniment for Honeyboy or Hubert than Big Head Todd. Conforth obviously knows, loves, and can play the blues in a way that very few today can match. His show on Monday, accompanied by a very good harmonica player, did Johnson proud.

Emma B

Sat, Feb 12, 2011 : 4:39 p.m.

I'm in one of Bruce's blues classes at UM right now-- he is hands down the best professor I've had here. But I almost wish I had skipped his class on Thursday before attending the concert. It might have been a little easier to hear Big Head Todd if I hadn't heard the original recordings of some of these songs only a few hours earlier...


Fri, Feb 11, 2011 : 6:39 p.m.

The review got it right. Glad I went but Mohr's squeeky "vocal stylings" were odd at best....if he doesn't feel or understand the music, that's ok....but spare us please. The concert really worked when Malcolm and Burnside were the focus, and the way Malcolm helped Edwards and Sumlin was very sweet. BTW, Monday's UMS-presented lecture/performance on the life of Robert Johnson was excellent. Kudos to the professor for his heart-felt reseach and to him and the person who accompanied him as vocalist.


Fri, Feb 11, 2011 : 4:11 p.m.

Review is spot on and I ask who conceived this mishmash of mediocre white boys 'playing' the blues interspersed with real blues artists? Ann Arbor was on the map with its world renowned Blues Festivals-is this the best that UMS could do to honor the great Robert Johnson?

Evan Blanchard

Sat, Feb 12, 2011 : 4:17 p.m.

You know conceived of &quot;this mishmash of mediocre white boys 'playing' the blues&quot;? Clearly not. The answer is Big Head Todd and the Monsters. So it was NOT UMS honoring Robert Johnson, it was Big Head Todd and the Monsters. And you know how they honored Johnson? By having Honeyboy Edwards and Hubert Sumlin on the tour, and by having Todd sing in the style of Robert Johnson on several of the songs, especially the first two. Another question: how many times to Johnson make any allusion to younger white people not being able to play the blues? Answer: 0. I discuss this issue in my blog, Blues at the Crossroads: <a href="" rel='nofollow'></a> The concert was far from perfect. But it did demonstrate the blues, old and new, and it did honor Robert Johnson.

mickey mcguire

Fri, Feb 11, 2011 : 7:27 p.m.

WOW! The white boy thing again. I hoped at least in music we had progressed beyond that. Sad!!


Fri, Feb 11, 2011 : 3:13 p.m.

I had a group of relatives that went to the concert. They all play guitar and love the blues. This review is complimentary from what they had to say about the music. A big disappointment.


Fri, Feb 11, 2011 : 2:58 p.m.

This review is spot on. A white band, although technically sound, playing deep delta blues to an all-white audience in celebration of Robert Johnson's 100th birthday? It was a train wreck. It was great to see Honeyboy Edwards and Hubert Sumlin but how about musicians with some authenticity backing them up. Keb Mo or Taj Mahal would have made Robert Johnson proud. As the former editor of Chicago Blues Magazine, I was bored. Those asking for an encore just don't know any better.

Evan Blanchard

Sat, Feb 12, 2011 : 4:30 p.m.

&quot;The blues ain't nothin' but a good woman on your mind&quot; &quot;The blues ain't nothin but a good man feelin' bad&quot; &quot;A guy will promise you the world and give you nothin', and that's the blues&quot; &quot;I have heartaches, I have the blues&quot; &quot;I merely took the energy it takes to pout and wrote some blues&quot; All of these quotes are either statements made by blues musicians (or Duke Ellington, in the case of the last quote) and/or lyrics from their songs. How many blues musicians that you think are &quot;authentic&quot; have said that being white diminishes &quot;authenticity&quot;? It seems that the fact that there were lots of white people on stage and in the audience (an undeniable fact) is the reason you give for it being a &quot;train wreck.&quot; Well, as a white person in the audience, I personally apologize for ruining the concert. <a href="" rel='nofollow'></a>

mickey mcguire

Fri, Feb 11, 2011 : 7:24 p.m.

All races of bands, which is sad you have to put it that way, play Deep delta blues in their own way. Just like Jimmi Hendrix, Buddy Guy etc etc. Stevie Ray Vaughn. Oh excuse me was he white? If you are looking for just deep delta blues you need to go to the Delta. That form by the way is a guy and a guitar. Try listening to Wolfman Balfour. These people were out to honor RJ not to copy him. If that is what folks want they should research the players before they buy tickets to see them.

mickey mcguire

Fri, Feb 11, 2011 : 1:52 p.m.

As a Blues Fanatic who has studied the Blues and travelled through both the Delta and Blues venues all around the country, I am shocked that would place such a poor critique on these pages. There were two true icons of the blues on the stage with well tuned musicians that came from every perspective of the Blues. If one does not like a higher toned voice for the Blues you must at least appreciate the craftsmanship of the music and the deep love for the genre that poured out in every piece. There was magic in Hill last night and the audience (other than the author) responded accordingly. The Blues may have started in the Delta but true Blues lovers understand the variety of styles that can be blended in any given venue at any time.


Fri, Feb 11, 2011 : 11:26 a.m.

Wow, were you at the same concert I was at? Hm, maybe I just don't understand the blues too well, but I found great energy, authenticity, and spirit in most of the numbers. Todd's vocal stylings were particularly impressive, as was the way all the musicians supported and lent their voices to Sumlin and Edwards. It seemed to me an excellent selection of old- and new-school blues, and I'm pretty sure from the enthusiasm of everyone in my section and, oh yeah, the encore called out, that I was not alone in that estimation. BRAVO, I say.