Death Juice and World Boogie: The North Mississippi Allstars
As if to validate the claim Blake once made that "honest indignation is the voice of God," in the early 1920's a primal howling, sound shot out of the Mississippi Delta, bound inherently in old time spirituals and preached by a philandering virtuosi fugitive from divine justice. But as far as dichotomies go, that's the blues for you. Marinated in moonshine, bound by a communal sense of exchange, tempered by struggle, and expressing itself with a polymorphous perversity that made even the most vulnerable plea bristle with a terse sexualized aggression, it was the sound of musicians coming suspiciously to terms with the mere possibility of a freedom they had always felt within themselves, running deeply into dark spaces that we wouldn't want to see and sanctified ones that most of us never will. Sharpening itself into a point, the sound punctured the collective American musical consciousness, a small leak that soon became one vast wave of stylistic change. As that evolution occurred, another blues mutation began to take place back in the rural Mississippi swampland outside of Memphis, resulting in a strain that possessed within it the kaleidoscopic residue of other developing genres.
Discarding intricate chord changes and building on the sparse rhythmic directness borrowed heavily from the fife-and-drum tradition, the bastardization was riff driven, droney, and hypnotic; funny, insular and unaffected, it synthesized the physical and spiritual. The result was a collection of intimate music that would come to revolve around communal blues haunts like Junior Kimbrough's Juke Joint that crushed that collaborative electricity into combustible spaces. When Junior's burned down in the late 90's, as if mourning the loss of its founder, it left a collection of musical moments special enough (like any good montage) to presuppose its short life span. People would eventually call it "Hill Country Blues," and its patriarchs were figures like Otha Turner, Fred McDowell, John Hurt, and eventually R.L Burnside and Kimbrough — figures that traced their musical roots back to where the whole thing began, either in spirit or in cases like Burnside learning his chops from Muddy Waters and his neighbor McDowell. Point is, there was a linear thread that ran through the whole thing, a blues collective with its own insular warmth and identity.
When McDowell died, among those at his funeral was Jim Dickinson — a savvy producer and session musician who had collaborated with figures like Duane Allman, The Rolling Stones, and Ry Cooder . With him was his wife Mary, pregnant with their first child Luther, attending his first of what would be many childhood of gatherings of the Hill Country elite. Soon after came Cody. For the eldest of the two, it was a fitting prelude to a childhood spent listening to Black Flag and Husker Du, running around amongst a modernized class of blues icons who would become something like strange, whiskey guzzling godfathers.
There is no truly authentic blues anymore. The blues, the original blues, is dead. That's what they say these days, and as far as Mississippi delta acoustic ramblings or the Chicago urban renaissance, they're probably right — "they" being pasty- faced middle-aged virgins pumped full of the same death juice that Scorcese injected into the blues a few years back, chasing a sound that captured in single verses the delicate balance of violence, lust, history and romance around which his films have danced desperately. Now we can't even pick up King of the Delta Blues Singers without it being PBS's greatest hits.
Or maybe the point is that things change. Music, at its best, changes in the same way that people, at their best, change — by preserving its most inherent and honest features and predisposing itself with expansion. (Or else we wouldn't have Hendrix's Monterey "Killing Floor" or the black magic psychedelia of Zeppelin.) The blues, lest ye forget, is the reason we're able to talk about rock and roll in the first place, its primordial, inviting ooze. The falsity of wistful nostalgia is founded in the way that it supposes one meteoric death when in fact there have been many. Sounds crumble and rise phoenix-like out of their own ashes, brash twenty-something chain smoking demagogues and counterculture are obliterated by appropriation and assimilation only to leave their esoteric residue in places other than college dorm rooms. Great stitched monsters are charged and — eyes widening grotesquely in the moment of non-sensical vitality — spring to abbreviated life; and history, particularly rock history, inevitably repeats itself. So there's something appropriate about the fact that a blues collective that jumpstarted the sounds evolution should spit out, of all things — a great rock and roll band. Retaining that Hill Country core, the Dickinsons infused the sound with their collective post-punk sensibility and the funk laden gospel influence of bassist Chris Chew, filtering the whole amalgam through a psychedelic lens revealing its composite soul. The band got their first real gig backing their extended musical family at The Dixie Fred Festival, and — as if discarding the inevitability of independence called themselves The North Mississippi Allstars.
Eight years later, Luther Dickinson sits in a cramped dressing room in the back of New York's Irving Plaza, rolling his own cigarettes with the natural post-orgasmic placidity with which, I find, only some parts of the south manifest themselves. He slinks back easily into his chair, nodding in solemn agreement with a thought he's just had. "You know what it is?" he asks, looking up. "It's a kind of primitive modernism, that's what I like in music." It's an apt maxim for a guitarist who will take the stage in a few hours to inject The Dirty Dozen Brass Band's New Orleans take on the traditionalist Bluegrass revival "I'll Fly Away" with a "Purple Rain" crescendo, dancing the vocal tambour of his slide guitar work merrily over the ensuing chaos, as if it were the climactic eunuch cry of the man himself.
Like any good modernist, Dickinson is necessarily a nostalgic, and who can blame him. After all, he finds himself in the unique position of being able to talk about the late 90's as if it were a watershed moment in music, as if it stood up to the sense of meaning and place that drapes itself over his remembrances of the period with the same hippie ebullience that liberatingly fills the spaces of the band's sound. Dickinson talks about Junior's the way that Robbie Robertson might talk about the basement tape sessions or Mickey Hart would the festival express, stringing together small memories that contain the feeling of heartbreak, humor, and purpose with which people describe events indicative of some larger, intangible moment that usually doesn't last.
"It was amazing," Dickinson says, "Otha was making records and touring, RL was making records and touring. It was like the Blues explosion meets The Beastie Boys. Junior's every Sunday night…" He pauses, shaking his head. "Man, it was so amazing, because whole families were there, whole families of musicians." He emphasizes families and musicians with a reverential deliberation, which is not entirely surprising. "But it was always about moving forward, too. Different things would make me feel good about what we were doing. I remember Junior's son Dave.. He would do All Night Long' and just drive women crazy. And he'd do it for like ten minutes, and then he'd just reach back and crank his amp up all the way and just go, freak out. He'd sound like Prince or Jimi Hendrix. I would see things like that, and it would make me feel good about what all of us were doing collectively as a second generation." He calls Turner one of his "greatest mentors," and was able to offer his own thanks in producing the then 90 year old patriarch's debut album Everybody Hollerin' Goat.'
Yet the term primitive modernism is as much a commentary on the way a band obsessed, as Cody once put it, with "bastardization" has been able to hold on to the minimalist grace of the tradition from which it operates. The Allstars — like most musicians appropriated into the jamband community without throwing self righteous, apple sauce tossing hissy-fits — tend to look at music not as a linear but circular evolution, rotating around the fixed idea that sounds inevitably run into each other if one digs deep enough. The stylistic result has been a direct approach that paves a wide birth for the thick virtuosity of Luther's guitar lines as well as the incorporation of aggressive, often distinctly contemporary drumming from his brother, whose taut interactions with Chew's funked-out bass provide the driving density of the band's sound all the while maintaining the trance-like, tribal constancy of that fife-and-drum subconscious.
"I think fife-and-drum music is a really good way of looking at it," Dickinson notes. "You know, guys like Fred McDowell and RL weren't big on changes. They were just playing the riff, the rhythm, and the melody with the slide. And that's very much like fife and drum. It's got rhythm, it's hammering out with the fife and the vocal is doing the melody. I think that's the secret to the Hill Country Blues. When we first started the band in 96 we were real traditional. Chris (who Dickinson met in grammar school) brought this gospel-influenced vocal harmony and gospel bass, which changed everything. He's just kind of been this magic in the air and it keeps getting better and better. That was the same year we were playing on Blues Street and started to combine all of the different influences — Hill country, gospel, psychedelic Southern rock. We also started improvising, and that's where our sound started to become unique to us." Thematically, the idea implies the perpetual grasping at the revue concept integral to the band's identity. "Our Dad played in a rhythm section," Dickinson notes, "and that mentality is so essential, I feel. We'll play with anybody. We'll do anything to make music happen."
While it would take most acts a career to jam that composite pathos of history, innovation, progeny and communal exchange into a meaningfully realized experience, the Allstars managed to come quite close in their recent live release Live at Bonnaroo,' which details the band's show-stealing set at the Tennessee music festival, which boasted acts ranging from The Dead, Steve Winwood to improv monarchs Medeski Martin and Wood and Trey Anastasio. That afternoon coincidentally the last time I saw the band perform prior to this Iriving Plaza appearance — saw the band's original lineup, complete with part-time core member Duwayne Burnside, joined by his father R.L., brothers Gary and Cody, Jim Dickinson, and the Rising Fife and Drum Band, consisting of Turner's grandchildren. The band also had assistance from Widespread Panic's Jo Jo Herman, who toured with the brothers as The Smiling Assassins ( just one part of a conspiratorial web of exhausting, arachnid proportions), as well as ex Black-Crowes frontman, full time Robert Plant impersonator and hypnotist Chris Robinson, all of whom united under the banner of "The North Mississippi Hill Country Revue."
The set pinballed wildy from reverential nods to McDowell ( a searing version of "Shake em on Down"), Burnside ( " Po Black Maddie, "Snake Drive") and Turner ("Station Blues") to modernized NMA originals like Cody's "Be So Glad" — a game of musical hot-potato between children maintaining that quintessentially endearing resistance to appropriating a legacy that is theirs by right for fear of disempowering patriarchs whom they love, and musical parents who, like any other kind, wanted more for their sons than they had for themselves. Luther crouched down next to one of the drums, wafting in the reverberations with a sheepish grin as if regressing momentarily back to some juvenile state like a middle aged man hiding under the kitchen table and grabbing at passing feet. Burnside wore a hat which read "Retired" and was ushered in on a throne, proclaiming in his hangover drawl, "These are my sons! They're doin alright! Layin it down!" The eldest Dickinson sang the Delta jewel "Down in Mississippi" with the ferocity of a cultural anthem, which, in some sense, at least for the moment, it was. Completed by the familiar mid-July Tennessee heat, things must have felt a lot like home, minus the fact that this particular backyard had about 80,000 people in it.
"Our Dad, it was so hot that day..He fainted right after the show, just passed out," Dickinson recalls with a grin. "We were supposed to take a group picture, but we just got out of there and took him to the hotel. But he woke up in the pick up truck as we were going down that back road, and he said, Well, I'm not the showman I used to be, I should have passed out on stage.' "
"Thank God RL made it through," I say.
Ultimately, the album serves well as a virgin documentation of the All-Star's relentless touring schedule as well as their throwback dependence on live performance in garnering a fan base. "We recorded like four or five shows, and they all sucked," Dickinson says of previous attempts at live albums. "They just weren't any transcendental type shows where we were doing anything beautiful. After the final replay of this album, I just said, wow, this is special. RL, he's been in retirement for like two and a half years. He hasn't sang… I remember standing right next to him, and he counted us in, and he sounded just a little hesitant for a second. Then he's like, Wait, I've still got it.' And he just goes, man. His voice filled up the whole tent. It's very close to what our initial vision was, what we're doing right now."
That being said, having a producer as a father isn't a fortuity that's been entirely neglected. Since first uniting in 96 The Allstars have roped in two Grammy nominations for Best Contemporary Blues album, an ironic titular amalgam of the genre and nostalgia crazes that drives the elder Dickinson up the wall. Neither hit paydirt, but with a system that shuns Let it Be' for an album by Three Dog Night, sometimes it's really the thought that counts. Either way, Luther might not be fond of the blues part, but at least the contemporary was a step in the right direction. The first nomination came for their debut album Shake Hands With Shorty,' comprised of takes on Burnside and McDowell material and based on the former's expression for relieving himself; the second was for their first offering of original material on the follow up 51 Phantom,' dubbed by one writer as "manic cottonfield psychedelia."
Listening now, these albums sound — as a necessary reflection of the band's identity — raucous and undecided, the precise energy, in a benevolent twist of fate, that a blues community in the process of being embalmed was screaming for. Underscored by the coiled anarchist hostility remaining from a dormant punk obsession, the records demonstrate a preternatural feel for the sound pool in which they dabbled, leaving suggestive voids to be filled by the band's developing imagination. Polaris' appeared soon after as a continuing testament to that sense of possibility, dipping that Hill Country core into a surprisingly pop-conscious stew, and even throwing in a cum-Burnside incorporation of hip-hop; but, more significantly, it effortlessly juxtaposes intimate roominess and airy, psychedelic space in a way that recalls Hendrix's Electric Ladyland.'
"I was kind of in a lost, confused part of my life, you know what I mean?" Dickinson says looking down at the floor. "And I think you can hear that in the record. But that's what a record is; it's a document of that time." Almost as if to verify the admission, the plans for another smoke begin to fester and he looks quickly around for materials. "It was unabashedly honest, and a bit strange. I found myself trying to write in this Southern blues poetry kind of mode. There's something about that feeling that I really like. Like with Dylan, he had this brilliant way of re-working these ancient lyrics, or writing lyrics that sounded ancient. You just try to be as honest and as real as you can, and if you can manage that, people always manage to relate."
The band's upcoming release Electric Blue Watermelon' marks a return to the in-family production scheme that Dickinson unflinchingly (he doesn't flinch, I do) calls his "life's work," borne of similar struggle. "When Junior died, and especially when Otha died a few years ago, it destroyed me — it made me rethink who I was, what I was meant to be doing, and what we represent. I think it's a reflection of what the answers to those questions were. We've talked a bit about the blues, but we're a younger generation and it's just rock and roll, we're just a rock and roll band, and I think this is a great rock record, I really do. Our father worked on this one with us again, and he did a masterful job with it. He was proud, because it was a continuation of his life's work, and extension of his vision." *****
Later that night the band opens its Irving Plaza set with a bruising treatment of 51 Phantom,' layering the surprisingly coarse growl of Dickinson's lyrics over the barebones hostility of his brother's drum work. It's a caustic wake up call, which segues into an epic "Po Black Maddie" that careens from the basic riff driven dialogue to echoing, distorted abstraction — a sonic tour through the band's collective consciousness occurring within a framework that wouldn't appear to be able to support the weight.
"Po Black Maddie got no…" Dickinson moans, "...Change in clothes." The intervening fill — quick, dirty, and impertinent, like a slap on a passing waitress' rear — might as well have said, "Damn sure don't." Somewhere in Mississippi, you could almost hear Burnside laughing his cagey coal miner's laugh.
Dickinson might be a rock musician, but he's a blues guitarist by nature and instinct, necessarily predisposed with constructing an instrumental voice; and he manages to produce one, as it happens, that you can pick out in a crowd. When the first bluesmen couldn't speak to anyone, they pantomimed with slide guitar; and it's a call and response dynamic that Dickinson has captured with taut efficiency, translating verse for some imaginary instrumental audience through a dialect that veers from that viscous, syrupy drone to the kineticized lap pedal steel whine to snapping back a yo-yo solo with the safety of those guttural Hill Country sneerings.
For the encore, The Allstars are joined by lap steel prodigy Robert Randolph, forming a semi-reunion of the trio (Luther, Randolph, and keyboard virtuoso John Medeski) that released the myth accruing sacred steel record The Word,' which played no small role in Randolph's swiftly ascending success. With the elder of the Dickinson brothers sporting his longtime friend's trademark derby, the two exchange playful, fraternal licks as Cody works through an extended romp on his now infamous "electric washboard."
"We always say World Boogie is coming,'" Dickinson had told me earlier, "and what that means to us is that black blues culture and crazy white boys like us just blending in and partying. That's what Junior's was like. In the hey-day there would be a room full of beautiful under-age girls dancing with these gnarly old country dudes," he laughed, "and that's what it's all about, in a way." Behind them, The Rising Star Fife and Drum Band beat away ecstatically, as much in some strange parental reincarnation as to reassure the guitarist of some idea he wants to remember.
"The last song on the new record is an old recording of Cody and I with Otha and his band," he had told me. "At the end of the song, Otha's playing fife and we're playing with him, and he goes, It's all on y'all now. Y'all do whatever you want, it's all on y'all now.' And back then, man, we didn't think anything of it. But when I heard that played back a couple of days ago, it killed me. It just killed me."