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Published: 2004/03/08
by Aaron Hawley

North Mississippi Allstars w/ MOFRO, Mr. Smalls Theatre, Pittsburgh PA- 2/27

"I ain't gonna talk ugly, because we're in church tonight," Mofro's JJ Grey rasped to a rapt audience early on in the Friday night's festivities, "and we all fixin to get baptized in fire!" Can't fault the man for being so right. Mr. Small's Theatre, a de-sanctified 19th century catholic church, redressed as the finest venue in the steel city, deserved nothing less than a night of searing rock and roll wild enough to raise all the spirits in all the nooks and crannys the room's high arched ceiling.

Jacksonville, Florida's MOFRO started things off with a 40 minute warm up set that was decidedly too short. Led by multi-instrumentalist JJ Grey, this quartet's swampy sound proved to be just what the doctor ordered, and fit perfectly on a bill with the All Stars. "How Junior Got His Head Put Out" got the crowd moving for the first time. Grey acted as emcee of sorts passed the musical ball around while he introduced his comrades in arms during an extended "Six Ways From Sunday". The highlight of the set came when JJ called Luther Dickinson to the stage, who emerged from the wings with his trademark Flying V in hand ready to rip it up. The group eased into "Lochloosa" a slow three chord jam which built gently to a crescendo before slowing back down again. That wasn't all they had in store however, and a crack of drumsticks the group was into "Florida" a testament to the group's home state. As Dickinson took over, the jam built to an impressive peak, his clean tone wailing on top of a whirling organ and rock steady cymbal crash combo. The pace sped up and the jam careened to a raucous close Grey howling out "I believe!" and it was easy to tell that he wasn't the only one, because the audience heartily agreed.

After a short set break the room filled to near maximum capacity and the North Mississippi Allstars took the stage, the crowd completely revved up and ready for some of that sound that's as real as the south itself. The band tore into "Goin' Down South" and we were off. Over the course of the next two hours and forty-five minutes the All Stars turned in a set filled with energizing peaks and thunderous valleys filled with their raging down-and-dirty sound. The first exploratory moment of the evening was the one two combo of "All Night Long > Sugartown", two NMAS staples tied together by the dueling guitars of Dickinson and Duwayne Burnside proved that the group was in sync this evening and there wouldn't be a moment left unfilled with piping hot southern rock. Duwayne, son of blues legend R.L. Burnside, stepped to the mic next and delivered two numbers drenched in what the Allstars do best: blues. This band's legacy is steeped in the deep, deep, south, each guitar line and lyric wrought with the land from which it sprung. After a few more tunes, including an insidiously catchy instrumental, Cody Dickinson stepped out from behind his drum kit and took over the guitar and vocal duties while Duwayne stepped behind the kit. Cody led the band through a brisk rendition of Lynyrd Skynyrd's "Whiskey Rock a Roller" before firing up the audience with his psychedelic washboard playing. Though "washboard" and "psychedelic" aren't two terms that usually are placed so close together, when Cody gets going on that thing, it seems apt. His frenetic scratching manipulated through a litany of pedal lays a whirlwind of sound on the listener's ears, and always manages to drop a few jaws throughout the crowd.

Washboard solo out of the way, the boys proved that we were in the homestretch as they unleashed a cranked up version of "Sittin' On top of the World". As Luther growled out each lyric with vigor, the band passed the head around each taking their turn at taking it somewhere new. "Shake em on Down" followed and was an obvious fan favorite, bassist Chris Chew's fat low end delivering each beat of the song directly into the listener's gut. This is music that is meant to get inside you any way it can. It might knock you over or it might just barrel on in, but it will. The set came to a close with a rollicking "All Night Long > Turn On Your Love Light > All Night Long" which got all the deadhead toes tapping, but found an audience who, nearly two and half hours into it, had nearly given their all.

Luther emerged solo for the encore, strumming out the pretty and poignant "Kids These Daze" showing the softer side of the band's emerging songwriting. MOFRO's JJ Grey returned to the stage to add vocals to "Up Over Yonder" off of 2001's 51 Phantom. With closing time drawing near the band cranked into high gear one more time for R.L. Burnside's "Po Black Maddie". As the houselights came up and the crowd filed back out of the church into the Pittsburgh night, many felt that there had indeed been something spiritual going on. It wasn't the kind of thing you can attribute to a deity or saint, but to that down home rock and roll that hits you once in the gut and knocks your head back on straight.

Aaron Hawley never went to church much, but now that he’s been to Mr. Small’s, he’ll go more often.

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