4.10.2009

Guitar hero

My 24-year-old self would be shocked by the reality of 2009.

Seriously, if a time machine whisked me from 1991 to the present, I would probably climb right back into the thing and wish I’d never seen this place.

The reason has nothing to do with politics or porn or the Patriots. The reason is that young me would simply not be able to fathom a future in which Big Head Todd wasn’t the king.

Backed by his band “The Monsters,” Big Head Todd played fraternity parties while I was still in high school. He played Colorado shows throughout my college years. And in the early 90s, he played a series of unforgettable shows at the Mangy Moose in Jackson Hole.

Front row center. I was there.

More than a little dark, more than a little angry, and full of blistering guitar solos that could literally set your hair on fire, BHTM shows during the early 90s were insane. They were beautiful and mad and explosive. He played the crowd like a bunch of drunk puppets, and we loved him for it.

The spirit of those shows is captured in the end-all, be-all retrospective album of all time, Midnight Radio. Between 1991 and 1999 I think I listened to it close to a billion times, and it always blew me away.

As a youngster, driving across the mountain plains of Wyoming with lightning in the distance and Midnight Radio as a backdrop, it was as good as it gets.

One of my most memorable BHTM moments was at the Stagecoach Bar. It was the night BHTM appeared on Letterman for the first time (Dave: “you know, I saw him backstage, and he does have a HUGE head”…), and they had him on the big screen TV in the corner. Dave gave him a half-hearted welcome, and Todd thanked him by stomping his way through a guitar solo in that pissed off, sulky, arrogant eruption of style that was him and only him. Not only did the bar full of cowboys and nail bangers stand rapt, knowing that they were seeing something truly special, but Dave himself leapt out of his chair and ran over to shake Todd’s hand immediately after the song. Dave knew he was seeing greatness, too.

Trying to explain how great Big Head Todd was in 1991 is like trying to explain how great it was to be 24. Words can’t really do the trick.

But I think that with his music, he captured the spirit of the post 80s crash ski bum generation. We weren’t really into relationships, into work, or into the whole team thing, but god damn it, despite our painful lack of employability we were all “on a train bound for glory, going clickety clack, clickety clack away from you.” Oh, and by the way, here’s a face-melting, fuck-yeah guitar solo to prove it.

Big Head Todd was our guy. And Midnight Radio was our soundtrack. From Boulder to Bozeman, it was the voice of a generation and a geography. Bound for glory. Amen.

I saw Big Head Todd perform at Higher Ground in Burlington last night. The club was half full, maybe more and it sure seemed like there were a lot of minivans in the parking lot. We strolled in a few minutes before the show started and walked right up to the stage right speaker stack … about 15 feet from Todd’s mike stand.

It was a really good show. Honestly. It was entertaining. I truly enjoyed hearing them play Broken Hearted Savior and the Leaving Song. And seeing the original trio on stage was as satisfying as hearing an old friend tell a familiar story.

But it wasn’t the future I expected nearly two decades ago. I didn’t expect to find the future Big Head Todd to be a decent guitar player with a decent band and some arguably decent new material. And I definitely didn’t expect to find myself wishing that he wouldn’t play Bittersweet.

Still, I feel lucky to have seen Big Head Todd play again. Not because I'm going to run out and buy his newest work (I'm not), but because I'm going to go back to Midnight Radio and appreciate it even more.

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