North Mississippi Allstars, Highline Ballroom, NYC – 4/9
The North Mississippi Allstars have always been men with a mission. In winnowing their ranks back down to the original trio: guitarist Luther Dickinson, his brother, drummer Cody Dickinson and bassist Chris Chew, the Allstars bring more to the table than the ability to raise the collective temperature of any room they play. When they dive headfirst into the blues they learned at the feet of masters like R.L. Burnside, they offer the cathartic release that the blues specializes in generating. It’s the same type of liberating energy that Craig Brewer depicted in all its sweaty glory in the blues bar scenes of Black Snake Moan. The kinship is no coincidence; Brewer’s film is born from the same mindset that imbues the Allstars music. Luther Dickinson slyly referred to Samuel Jackson’s portrayal of Lazarus Woods, quoting the movie during the opening chords of “Po Black Maddie,” asking the crowd at New York City’s climate controlled HighLine Ballroom, which was considerably less damp than Christina Ricci, “Are you ready for some shit?”
The Allstars’ Manhattan stop fell near the end of a winter long tour that reunited Luther Dickinson with the Allstars after many months on the road and in the studio with the Black Crowes. An integral part of the NMA lineup, Dickinson’s time away was well served as the spectacled guitarist helped revitalize the Crowes by giving them their strongest and most versatile lead guitarist in the band’s history. During Luther’s absence, his brother and Chew engaged in a little revival of their own, teaming up with guitarist Kirk Smithhart, singer Daniel Coburn and drummer Ed Cleveland as the Hill Country Revue. Far from the Luther-less Allstars, the Hill Country Revue, who opened the show with a preview of their upcoming album Make A Move, tread upon the same ground as the NMA.
Hearing the name Hill Country Revue associated with the North Mississippi Allstars will conjure up some ghosts for those who’ve followed the Dickinson brothers over the years. Customarily associated with the Allstars’ guest-star laden performance at Bonnaroo in 2004, it’s come to represent the communal spirit engendered by tradition of passing music down through the generations. While there wasn’t any passing of the torch taking place at the Highline, the natural overlap between the two bands led to constant intermingling throughout the night, essentially turning the show into a four hour showcase for the Allstars brand of blues-rock. During the HCR’s opening set, Luther surreptitiously sat in on a second set of drums and lurked in the back with his guitar. For the Allstars' main set, Smithhart, Coburn and Cleveland made frequent visits to the stage fitting nicely into the Allstars sound. Cleveland spent nearly half the set on stage, bolstering the beat along with Cody Dickinson, his second set of sticks providing the full blast of drums typically associated with the Allman Brothers.
The Allstars live performance has been honed by many years on the road and they do a fine job of mixing things up on a nightly basis. Regardless there are always constants, without which a crowd might feel unsatisfied and start singing the blues themselves. In that regard, the Highline set didn’t fall short of expectations: Luther Dickinson offered up heaping servings of his masterful slide guitar, Chris Chew took over a couple songs with his soulful vocals, most notably their cover of Champion Jack Dupree’s “I’d Love To Be A Hippy,” before finding a leaning post to repose upon and there were several exhortations to shake. The latter seems to be a slight obsession with the Allstars, it being the overt theme of “Shake” and “Shake Em’ On Down” on this night and the intended side effect of the heavy bounce of “Sugartown” and the New Orleans-inflected joyousness of “Freedom Highway.” Cody Dickinson leading a rollicking rock-inflected jam on his electrified washboard may be another staple of the Allstars’ set, but on this night the washboard and finger talons only emerged during the Hill Country Revue’s opening set.
For close to two and a half hours, the Allstars moved through songs from various stages of their career, a slight nod to their recently released live retrospective Do It Like We Used To. Capable of working the blues in its traditional form, as they did in the opening last of “Brooks Run To The Ocean,” the Allstars come alive when they extend the form in the same manner as the Seventies musicians who used the genre as a guide and a launching point. The Allstars medley of “Po Black Maddie” and “Skinny Woman,” one of their more direct tips of the hat to their mentor, R.L. Burnside, has evolved from its traditional role as a psychedelic blues set piece. Bringing the rest of the Hill Country Revue onto the stage mid-song, the Allstars turned it into a heavier yet still experimental jam vehicle allowing Cleveland and Cody Dickinson free reign to unleash a double drum barrage. On their last studio album Hernando, they moved into more classic rock oriented music but never abandoned their true love. In extending the straightforward progressions of “Moonshine” and “Moon Ol’ Wind Died Down,” they worked wonders with the rolling melodies and on “Goin’ Home (Part 1)” and “Snake Drive” kicked it into overdrive.
Keeping the Revue spirit going, Robert Randolph, the Hendrix of the pedal steel guitar, emerged from backstage and sat in for the latter part of the set. A frequent collaborator with the Allstars, Randolph sightings as of late have been few and far between and his appearance drew a number of excited cheers. For his guest spot, Randolph shed most of the accoutrements that accompany his live shows: instead of finding a place center stage with his pedal steel, clad in a New York sports jersey, the nattily dressed Randolph worked his way around the electric guitar, taking his leads from Luther Dickinson while Cleveland and Cody Dickinson unleashing a double drum barrage from the rear of the stage. After a couple loosely structured jams which segued into “Mississippi Boweevil,” Cody picked up a guitar they went into a nice interpretation of The Word’s “Joyful Sounds.”
The Highline Ballroom show further proved that the true joy of any Allstars show is the facility the Dickinson brothers and Chew have with the blues. The traditional rhythms of the Mississippi Delta, the optimistic melodies of New Orleans and the gospel-tinged elegies of a downtrodden populace become malleable works of clay in their respectful hands. When you factor in Luther Dickinson’s ability to interject some Hendrix style wizardry into the mix, you get an old-school band working in a new jack world. Perhaps the Allstars said it best in the midst of “No Mo” when they pondered, “it ain’t like it used to be . . . it ain’t like it used to be.”