The North Mississippi Allstars hold a special place in my affections. When I started getting into this blues thing a bit, they were one of the first bands I discovered for myself. At the time I knew diddly squat about the North Mississippi hill country, or the singular mysteries of the blues emanating from the area. But when I got hold of their album Shake Hands With Shorty my jaw dropped. These Dickinson guys could groove like gravy (I’ve just made that up, but you get the alliterative idea) with nagging rhythms, and then next thing they’d explode all over the place.
|Some of the NMA collective|
And I'm pleased to say they’ve come up with the goods again. Up And Rolling is inspired by the rediscovery of collection of photographs harking back to Luther and Cody Dickinson's formative experiences of the musical heritage of the North Mississippi hill country, and includes reworkings of old songs from their mentors and influences, as well as originals from the Dickinsons and their pals. But it’s also a celebration of the community and lifestyle from which it springs. And the emergence of NMA from the hill country and its music is well captured by Luther Dickinson in the booklet accompanying the CD – including his inimitable description of his own guitar playing: “I forged my style of psychedelic open tuned fingerpicked bottle neck country blues guitar by combining the horizontal melody of Fred’s [Mississippi Fred McDowell] and Otha’s [Otha Turner] bamboo can fife with rock’n’roll tube amp power and thumb picked rhythmic boogie as marching drums in the distance.” You said it Luther.
So they open up with ‘Call That Gone’, tripping along on a paradiddle rhythm from Cody Dickinson and rumbling bass from Carl Dufrene, while Luther trades call and response vocals with Sharisse Norman. At first there are just intermittent injections of ragged slide guitar and flute-like fife from Sharde Thomas, but later they’re ramped up until they and the drums are in fiery, but controlled, competition. You won’t get stuff like this on your bog standard blues-rock album.
And to underline that point, they follow that with ‘Up And Rolling’, a deliciously dreamy affair, and little wonder when it’s evoking hazy Mississippi days drifting along on a stream of weed, LSD and mushroom tea. Built around a lovely descending melody, it hangs together beautifully, with those silky female vocals to the fore. Not to be done, Luther comes up with some delightful, delicate guitar work, that in combination with Wurly piano from brother Cody that brings to mind Hendrix in hypnotic mode.
They venture into a more traditional blues format on Little Walter’s ‘Mean Old World’, with a circular, pinging guitar figure, and Jason Isbell guesting on vocals, but they’re still adventurous with it, as a slide solo eventually takes off into an extended uptempo passage that’s very Allmans in style – making full use of the presence of Duane Betts on guitar. (Apparently the song was once recorded by their father, muso and producer Jim Dickinson, with Duane Allman and Eric Clapton during the Layla sessions.)
|The Dickinson brothers make World Boogie|
But they also dig down into the hill country roots, with a couple of RL Burnside songs in the form of ‘Peaches’ and ‘Out On The Road’, the former improvising around the patient groove, and the latter brief and to the point. Junior Kimbrough’s ‘Lonesome In My Home’, meanwhile, is a largely downbeat affair with ticking drums and distorted, haunting vocals that begin collide with modern guitar sounds until at times it sounds like it’s on the cusp of falling apart.
But other influences are reflected too, as on the ‘Pops’ Staples song ‘What You Gonna Do?’, which with Mavis Staples guesting is gospel reframed as simple and repetitive soulfulness. And there’s also the vintage gospel of Tom Dorsey’s ‘Take My Hand, Precious Lord’, a great tune on which Luther Dickinson trades vocal and guitar licks with Cedric Burnside.
And there are socially conscious original songs too, with ‘Bump That Mother’ and ‘Living Free’ both featuring lyrics that cleverly make the political personal. The former is again tripped out, with a tense riff playing off more great female vocals, and some more spaced out Dickinson guitar, the latter laid back and soulful, with a catchy guitar riff and guest vocals from Tierini and Tikyra Jackson of the rather wonderful Southern Avenue.
North Mississippi Allstars are more a collective than a band, with Luther and Cody Dickinson at the helm. Up And Rolling is the latest phase in their mission to bring the North Mississippi hill country to the world, and new generations, and make good on the last words of their father, Jim Dickinson - “World Boogie is coming!”
Up And Rolling is out now on New West Records.