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Published: 2004/10/30
by Mike Greenhaus

Hill Country Revue – North Mississippi Allstars

ATO Records 021

While it was never correct to call The North Mississippi Allstars the sum of their parts, it always seemed appropriate to describe the young blues-band as the sum of their past. Playing a stripped down blend of blues, country, and rock, filtered through a post-punk ethos, the North Mississippi Allstars embraced their lineage whole heartedly, resetting their native sounds in a gritty, modern context. Though second generation musicians traditionally reject their parent's teachings on principle, the North Mississippi Allstars embraced their family leanings, even hiring Luther and Cody's father, Luther Dickinson, to produce 2001's 51 Phantom. So, it makes sense that the North Mississippi Allstars refashioned their first live offering into a three-dimensional family reunion, utilizing Bonnaroo’s crosspollination formula as an excuse to jam with three generations of friends and relatives.

And, at first glance, Hill Country Revue is a rather daunting listen. Though the disc’s sound is immediate and inviting, it requires a crib sheet to sort through each track’s players and Friendster-style connections. A Cliff’s Notes-style introduction to Hill Country Revue might read like the following: Luther and Cody Dickinson are NMAS's backbone, a young but weathered duo whose rock roots at times extend into the realm of jam-pop and Black Keys-style garage-romps. Jim, their father, is a noted producer and session man whose fingerprints are visible each time Luther takes a Duane Allman-style guitar solo or Cody makes a swampy-swing with his drumstick. Chris Chew is the NMAS's other third, a large but young high school friend whose meaty bass plucks fleshes the Dickinson's noises into a full-band sound.

Also appearing on Hill Country Revue is Duwayne Burnside, The North Mississippi Allstars’ former second-guitarist, whose tight, twin-guitar style helped extend the group into Southern rock. Returning to the fold for this one off performance, Duwayne also brings along his father R.L., a tried-and-true north Mississippi bluesman, whose hill country background provides this Revue with its title and this disc with its authenticity. The appearance of R.L.‘s other son, Gary, who adds additional guitar, and grandson Cody, who offers vocal raps on "Be So Glad" and "Snake Drum," turns Hill Country Revue into a Burnside family tribute of sorts, narrated by their longtime Mississippi neighbors. Coloring the album’s soul-style leanings is the Rising Star Fife & Drum Band, who carry the torch of Otha Turner’s famed fife-and-drum collective. Dickinson family historians will also be happy to note that Luther and Cody played one of their first gigs on a bill with Turner and the elder Burnside. Also, adding to the mix are a pair of jamband heavyweights, Widespread Panic keyboardist JoJo Hermann and celebrity-singer/hippie-icon Chris Robinson.

With such a revolving cast of musicians snaking through this single disc, 70-minute set, the name "revue" seems more appropriate than "band." Opening with "Shake 'Em on Down," a longtime NMAS cover written by Mississippi Fred McDowell, the Dickinsons offer this afternoon performance's thesis: in this setting the group does exactly what they always do, only grander. With R.L. joining the mix, the next, muddiest portion of Hill Country Revue pays tribute to the Burnside legacy, offering a healthy dose of the family's output: an extended medley of R.L.'s "Po Black Maddie" and "Skinny Woman," followed by a crisp "Jumper on the Line." A testament to R.L.'s parental influence, his cuts seamlessly segue into Duwayne's "Bad Bad Pain," a tight bit of blues-pop first heard on Polaris.

Mixing traditional Delta blues nuggets like "Down in Mississippi" and modern cuts like Cody's "Be So Glad," Hill Country Revue is a recreation of the traditional revue concept, dividing a single concert into several mini-shows. Yet, at times, this expanded band format works like the Talking Heads or Beach Boys later-day touring outfits, relegating R.L and Jim to guitar and organ respectively to focus on Luther, Cody, and Chris’s tight, rhythmic workouts. For his part, Robinson buffs up a cover of "Boomer’s Story," adding some mainstream, but legitimate, name brand value to this set.

But Hill Country Revue doesn't just succeed because of its asterisks and footnotes. With a large, skilled band acting as their support, the Dickinson brothers are able to accomplish their longtime ambition of expanding the country-blues boundaries. Though short, "Friend of Mine," and the pairing of "Goin' Home Part 2" and "Going Down South" are excellent, full arrangements, with each generation of players working like a single-minded, expanded collective. Contributions from the Rising Star Fife & Drum Band dot this disc's later portion, especially on Turner's own "Shimmy She Wobble" and "Station Blues" (here compacted into a single cut).

In fact, Hill Country Revue seems like a natural extension of the group’s studio output, which sounds best when carefully layered with additional instruments, often played by the Dickinson brothers themselves. Though friends like MOFRO’s JJ Grey and Robert Randolph would also seem like natural guests, this set’s exclusive invite list allows Luther Dickinson to rein in any unnecessary noodling, using his guests to showcase certain elements of the NMAS’s sound. With such strong family ties, on tracks like their own "Psychedelic Sex Machine," Luther and Cody can still turn an all-star set into a clear, focused performance, which filters their native sounds through the hippie-rock lens of Bonnaroo.

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