Based out of nearby Lula, Mississippi, and a veteran of the regional blues circuit, John Mohead is a lot more established than the up-and-coming artists usually featured in this column. But since he fits the column's criteria and hasn't been profiled in this space before, there was no reason to turn down his label's request for a review. Mohead, who performed at this year's Beale Street Music Fest and was a presenter at this year's Handy Awards, is a frequent Memphis performer. I caught him on a recent, rainy Sunday night at Huey's Midtown, where the guitar-playing Mohead set up with what appeared to be his regular band -- a three-piece that included a bassist, drummer, and percussionist/harmonica player. Memphian Ross Rice joined the band on keyboards. For his first set of the night, Mohead mixed originals and covers. An atmospheric instrumental led into a spirited take on Rodney Crowell's "Leaving Louisiana," with Mohead occasionally changing the lyrics to make the song more "Mississippi"-centric. The band also covered Stephen Stills' "Love the One You're With," which I've always thought was a pretty awful song but which the band did well, mostly due to Rice's pounding keyboard work.
As for originals, Mohead mixed songs from previous albums such as Lula City Limits and Rural Electric with songs he introduced as new. The new songs covered lyrical terrain that matched the road-worn, rural feel of the music, with one song Mohead introduced as new containing references to a "truck-stop girl" and the line "smell the diesel burn." The same song mentioned meeting a woman with a "Widespread" tattoo, which seemed a reference to the popular Southern jam band whose easy-going feel and improvisational aesthetic mirror Mohead's own.
Frankly, the music Mohead and his band offered, though well-played and well-received, was far too jammy for my own tastes. Most songs either began or ended with long, laid-back instrumental sections. And despite the varying sources of the material, it all sounded pretty much the same. Mohead currently records for Rooster Blues and has experience in the Nashville songwriting scene, a varied résumé of Southern roots music that came through in the band's set. The band mixed rock, country, and blues influences in a manner that could have been construed as either seamless blend or formless mishmash, depending on your perspective. The highly enthusiastic audience on this night definitely would have chosen the former. But I wasn't quite as sure.
Mohead proved to be a strong singer, even if his vocals, much like his band's music, were sometimes a little too busy for my tastes. On some songs, Mohead's voice sounded eerily like Van Morrison, and sometimes the delivery was more obviously Southern, evoking the Black Crowes' Chris Robinson.
If, like me, you prefer your blues more tightly focused and song-oriented, then John Mohead may not be your ideal. But if you like rootsy jamming that never abandons the song format, then John Mohead may well delight you as much as he did the crowd at Huey's on this night. -- Chris Herrington
The Memphis Flyer reviews local bands on demand. To schedule your group's Moment of Truth, call Chris Herrington at 575-9428 or e-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.