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A Buoyant Tribute: North Mississippi Allstars, July 1 at the Redstone Room PDF Print E-mail
Music - Feature Stories
Written by Jeff Ignatius   
Monday, 27 June 2011 14:06

Cody and Luther Dickinson

The North Mississippi Allstars’ Keys to the Kingdom – released in February – was recorded and partly written in the wake of the 2009 death of Jim Dickinson, father to the band’s brothers Luther and Cody and a noted producer and musician himself.

But the opening three songs should banish any thought that the album is a somber affair. Even when facing mortality straight-on, there’s a joyful noise inherent in the band’s blues-based music. And that will surely be evident when Luther and Cody Dickinson perform on Friday in a North Mississippi Allstars duo show at the Redstone Room.

From the sturdy blues of album opener “This A’Way” to the angry kiss-off of “Jumpercable Blues” to the gospel-tinged celebration of “The Meeting” featuring guest vocals by Mavis Staples, this is the sort of meaty roots music that earned the band multiple Grammy nominations and a Blues Music Award. The Chicago Tribune’s Greg Kot said that the album is the band’s best since its 2000 debut: “The Allstars play with unassuming ardor, letting the rawness seep through the edges of the arrangements. Drummer Cody Dickinson in particular delivers exactly what each song needs, nothing less, and keeps things swinging. It’s the kind of unsentimental yet passionate tribute a musical legend and family cornerstone would surely appreciate.”

To be sure, the album is often about death: “The Meeting” kicks off a trio of first-person songs that are lovely, graceful, and buoyant in their directness and acceptance. The North Mississippi Allstars on this album never come close to getting dragged down by grief.

In a phone interview last week, guitarist/singer/songwriter Luther Dickinson said that the Allstars have always followed their father’s lead in laying down tracks. “Record it fast and keep it loose and honest,” he said. “Where we always differed in the past or where I was always experimenting was sonically.” But on Keys to the Kingdom, the band as a tribute ditched some of the adventurousness. “It’s traditional, old-school sonics,” Dickinson said. “A lot of old rhythm mics and two pre-amps and keeping everything as simple and as mono as possible.”

There’s also a simplicity in the playing – a somewhat surprising result of Cody’s involvement with the Hill Country Revue and Luther’s with the Black Crowes. (Luther is undeniably a guitar wizard, and you can hear chilling echoes of Hendrix, for example, on the Allstars’ 2008 Hernando.) Luther said that on Hill Country Revue’s second album, “the lead guitar work that Cody and Kirk Smithhart did was so strong and amazing. And they recorded that record right before we did Keys to the Kingdom, and I was watching them doing it. And then doing so much lead guitar with the Black Crowes, it really made me want to make a simple songwriting record. And I was already in that direction, but listening to the Hill Country record being made, I was like, ‘Man, I’m not even going to try and do any flashy guitars. They just played enough guitars for this year. Maybe next year.’ And it suited the songs well, too. It wasn’t a problem.”

Keys to the Kingdom was also informed by the birth of Luther’s daughter three months after his father’s death. While that event isn’t reflected in the content of the songs, he said, it contributed to the record’s “overall sense of hopefulness and celebration. The cycle of life. The whole thing was pretty amazing from both ends of the spectrum.”

For duo shows such as the one at the Redstone Room, Luther said the absence of bassist Chris Chew has a clear impact. “To be honest, it’s more bluesy,” he said. “The trio is kind of like a classic rock-and-roll trio. But the duo is definitely more down-home. I like it. It’s a challenge.” Luther said he needs to provide the bottom end with his guitar, and “it’s a real cool finger-picking vehicle.”

And don’t expect a grim set. Luther said that some of Keys to the Kingdom’s bleaker songs – such as “Ain’t No Grave” and “Hear the Hills” – aren’t appropriate in most concert settings, and are best suited for a relationship between an individual listener and the song. “I don’t play them all,” he said. “It’s one thing to make a record and put it out. The record can be a private thing for the listener as well.”

The North Mississippi Allstars will perform a duo show on Friday, July 1, at the Redstone Room. The show starts at 9 p.m. Tickets are $20 and available from RedstoneRoom.com.

For more information on the North Mississippi Allstars, visit NMAllstars.com.

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