There is great joy in the blues. It’s an irony easily overlooked. But the North Mississippi Allstars on their 2013 release, World Boogie Is Coming, bring it on so completely it’s almost overwhelming. This is not your ordinary blues-rock trio. It’s as if these artists could have been plucked from the streets of Tupelo in the late ’40s when Sam Phillips was scouting for the likes of Ike Turner, Howlin’ Wolf, and B.B. King. This is easily one of the best albums of 2013. There’s not a dull track on this collection. Every song reaches its full potential with raging slide guitars and a mesmerizing rhythm section. On this album they are baptized in the dirty blues of their homeland. They are ZZ Top without the beards and a stronger authentic edge. They are so diverse they have found appreciative audiences in Americana, jam-rock, and in modern and traditional blues music.
Their pedigree is no less impressive. In fact, it may be the key to the depth of their Delta blues sound. Fronted by Luther and Cody Dickinson on vocals, guitar, and drums respectively, their father, Jim Dickinson, who passed away in 2009, was a rock ‘n’ roll journeyman who produced and played sessions with Bob Dylan, Alex Chilton, the Replacements, and Screamin’ Jay Hawkins. The father also has the distinction of recording what is today considered Sun Records’ last great songs – “Cadillac Man” – in 1966 when he was a guest artist with the Jesters. He also played piano for the Rolling Stones on “Wild Horses.”
If that doesn’t seal their membership in blues royalty, Duwayne Burnside, the son of Mississippi blues great, R.L. Burnside was once a member of the band. The elder Burnside managed to play on a few of the band’s tracks in the early days.
Like the soul music of Philadelphia and the rockabilly born in Memphis, the roots of the music of Mississippi have its origins close to the landscape of this deep southern territory. When most people think of Mississippi, the first music that comes to mind is the blues of the Delta. If any state can lay claim to giving birth to the blues, Mississippi can. There is a certain state pride that goes into the creation of the historic blues trail. While the Delta area is distinctive in its location between the Yazoo and the Mississippi rivers, the North Hill Country was also part of the same history. Both areas have enjoyed the rich soil of fertile and strong land. Both areas became the center for the slave trade where a vast majority of African American ancestry once lived. Both areas saw the rise of jazz, blues, country, and gospel that would eventually merge into rock ‘n’ roll. The lifestyle of the people would also influence the music’s development. While the Delta was heavily populated with African-Americans, the Hill Country blacks out numbered the whites with ratios estimated at nine to one. Many of the Delta’s population would soon leave the area, migrating north while the residents of the Hill Country stayed and kept their musical tradition close to the earth.
But the North Mississippi Hill Country blues became distinctive in the use of heavy African-influenced rhythm and percussion and slide guitar. While the music of the Delta was often built on folk songs or a lyrical structure, Hill Country blues was derived from a riff or a groove, which would drone until it became something of its own and song would rise. The musicians from the region were rooted in the land. Artists from the area include the influential Mississippi Fred McDowell and R.L. Burnside. While Delta musicians like Muddy Waters, Little Walter, and Howlin’ Wolf would grow in popularity and eventually migrate to Chicago where they learned to wear fancy suits and enjoy the city life; Hill Country musicians stayed home. As they remained, fame didn’t follow them. Eventually, musicologists like Alan Lomax would find them. By the time this happened, their roots had grown deep and the music was stirring and trance-like.
For the two sons of Jim Dickinson, the blues came to them like breakfast in the morning. As they learned to walk and took their lessons in school, blues music was the foundation of their lives. When it came time to develop their music, the direction clearly pointed away from the Delta and toward the songs of their own Hill Country. During the majority of their career they have been a deceptively powerful trio. Having Duwayne Burnside in the band as a second guitar player was one exception to the trio rule. The sound they created didn’t come from the influence of the English blues power trios like Cream, but from their own ancestry. The directness of their sound, unfiltered with any concessions to pop music, came from their own experience, not as the result of listening to popular Delta musicians of the past outside of their region.
Over the course of the last decade, success has been a steadily growing experience, if not of the overnight variety; their popularity has been consistent and well deserved. Their 2000 debut was greeted with a Grammy nomination for Best Contemporary Blues Album. Subsequent albums, 51 Phantom and Electric Blue Watermelon, were also nominated in the same category. In addition to their own tours, Luther Dickinson joined the Black Crowes as lead guitarist for a short time. The band has also toured and backed up John Hiatt.
The 2013 release of World Boogie Is Coming shows the band growing stronger in style and substance. The album is dedicated to the memory of their father and is worthy of his legend. It is a sweeping epic-like work that encompasses all of the fullness that the blues can be with an extra dose of imagination. At times, it plays like a great tour with songs derived from the North Hill tradition of percussion-driven drones and the focus on guitar riffs that develop over the course of jams. At times it quakes, leaving the listener with a sense that perhaps we haven’t heard all of the blues there is to hear. The boys bring out texture and, at times, it feels like they’re conjuring up the ghosts of Mississippi past. The album is, more than anything else, a testament to the sweep of American music.
Guests on the album include Robert Plant, but it’s these favorite sons and the music they make on this record that is center stage. The 17-song album has so much range and such span, it feels like a journey through the deepest of southern landscapes. In contrast to earlier albums, World Boogie has the feel of a less compromised project than anything they’ve ever recorded. It has a primitive approach that keeps the traditional blues amp’d up with distorted vocals and guitars attacking each other like crazed dogs while drummer Cody keeps the rhythmic variations jumping. “Snake Drive” is a fully realized highlight.
The greatest compliment that can be offered for this band and for their album is how well the modern stands alongside the traditional. At times it sounds smooth and effortless. On this album the Allstars have held fast to the Hill Country tradition of primal simplicity in rhythm and focus while adding layers of complexity on solos and jams with proven riffs, traditional and new songs, and a celebration of the ultimate joy of the blues that is rooted in a very fine cultural and family tradition of staying close to home.
See the North Mississippi Allstars at the Belly Up Tavern in Solana Beach on Wednesday, January 29, 8pm.