It’s probably fair to say that two acts have done much over the last handful of years to put the blues back into the mainstream of popular music, The Black Keys and Jack White in any and all of his various combos. You might of course take issue with that statement on a couple of counts. Can either genuinely be called a blues act? Secondly, you may want to throw the name of your own favourite act into hat. They may be classic or cult, middle of the road, or right out at the widest margins of music. There are certainly plenty of names on the fringes, stretching all the way to a thriving and sometimes surprisingly good UK pub circuit, all of whom may better suit your tastes or stake some more telling claims to authenticity.
That said few can doubt Jack White has a genuine passion for blues music, just look at what he’s doing with Document Records. While The Black Keys unquestionably channel some of the energy and vitality of the blues into their modernist melting pot. And both have a broad brush appeal that eludes even the most skilled disciples of fretboard pentatonics or the come to that, the roots purists. And anyway, do we want to get mired in a whole mess of definitions of what blue music is anyway?
At this point its time for me to aim the name of the North Mississippi Allstars at the upturned titfer on the table. In doing so I hope my opening gambit starts to make sense, because the band, whilst flying a little below the levels of the two acts named above, are on the up. In fairness they already have a dozen albums under their belts, this being the seventh studio set, with several Grammy nominations as a result. A side project with John Hiatt and touring with Robert Plant’s Band Of Joy have also given notable boosts in profile. Still, World Boogie Is Coming may just be the tipping point.
Musically they also share elements with both of the afore named, combined with a heritage that is uniquely theirs. The band was formed in the late 90s by brothers Cody and Luther Dickinson, both the sons of Jim Dickinson. Their father’s musical legacy stretches back into the 60s, but most notably he played piano on The Stones Sticky Fingers, also becoming a lynchpin of the Dixie Flyers. The latter were one of the legendary session bands of the south based at Criteria Studios in Miami, who along with similar combos based at Fame and Muscle Shoals, became the go to backing band for a diverse range of artists, both black and white.
Unable to settle in Miami, it was Duane Allman who persuaded Jim to go solo and a recording, writing and production career blossomed through the 70s, into the 80s and beyond. It included a productive partnership with Ry Cooder over several albums, but as a guitarist and keyboard man, he also immersed himself in the music of the Mississippi Delta.
It’s no surprise then that Luther and Cody grew up to be a guitarist and drummer respectively, but also with a thorough grounding in southern music, especially the blues. Together and separately their musical journey has been wide ranging and the North Mississippi Allstars were formed by the brothers in the late 90s, eventually releasing their debut album in 2000. It immediately led to the first of their Grammy nominations for Best Contemporary Blues Album.
The third member of the original trio is the impressively robust bassman Chris Chew, but along the way Duwayne Burnside, the son of R. L. Burnside has also featured as the second guitarist. In truth the history of NMA and all of its various offshoots might take another article and some months of research to get straight, but the result has been a fairly confusing array of releases, some live or official bootlegs. Amidst all of this, they’ve backed John Hiatt and echoing Jack White, Luther has allied his guitar skills to a more mainstream band, playing with the Black Crowes. Cody meanwhile has become involved in the world of film, which also make an impact on this release.
The significance of the Burnside connection is it perhaps demonstrates the brother’s penchant for delving into the edgier side of the blues and what you might call the ‘hill country’ strand. The spirit of Burnside senior and Jr. Kimbrough, two bluesmen who only really got any recognition late in life, lives on through this record. In many ways this ‘hill country’ music, often featuring guitar drones, wild syncopation and a refusal to adhere to a strict, 12 bar, 16 bar or any other repetitive pattern most closely echoes the music of Mali and the African continent.
That delving even extends as far as the fife and drum bands, which seems unique to the rural poor of the Delta. Using the simplest tools to make music, is both ingenious and demonstrates a ‘needs be as needs must’ spirit. Using river reeds to make a simple flute and pairing that with a drum, a tune could be struck and a party could be had at the drop of a hat. It’s a world away from what most people would identify with blues, but as true and basic as it comes. There is footage of Luther playing with one of the last great fife veterans Otha Turner on YouTube (see below) and his name is in the credits here. His granddaughter Sharde Thomas is keeping the tradition alive and she also appears.
The most important presence to make his spirit felt is unquestionably Jim Dickson. He always told the brothers that they’d make better music playing together than apart. It’s clearly been taken to heart, because when the seeds of this project were sown by Seasick Steve’s entreaties, Luther turned to Cody to help him realise his vision of mixing the primitive roots of the music with modern elements, thus keeping it all evolving, alive and healthy with a future as well as a past. He realised that he needed his brother’s contrasting tastes, as he says, “I realized that I had not been holding up my end of the deal. Since I am virtually devoid of modern influences, I turned to my brother Cody, who is my opposite in taste and style and loves modern music and production. Allowing Cody to produce the tracking sessions allowed me to sing and play wild and with abandon. Our contrasting styles are the heart of NMA.”
The credits bill the band as just the two brothers but with Lightnin’ Malcolm, Duwayne and Garry Burnside, Kenny Brown, Alvin Youngblood Hart, Sharde Thomas, Chris Chew, Sid and Steve Selvidge, Robert Plant and others credited as guests. It’s presented as an old style double album, but you have to download side four with a free code included with the CD, as the running time is well over the odds. Oddly for someone who suffers CD Attention Deficit Syndrome, the 75 minutes of this passed in a breeze, although I’m still working through the bonus material which includes several short films.
Luther explains, “This is not just a record but an on-going film project. It is a soundtrack to Cody’s films. Cody has discovered a love of filmmaking and knows that in this day and age you need multi media. He set out to use our landscape of modern day Mississippi and roadwork experiences to share with the audience a vision, a dreamscape of our world. We wanted the World Boogie Is Coming package to have as much visual content as possible, with the record itself being sonically cinematic, a montage of medleys similar to our live shows – the recording fell together beautifully with that intent. We set ambient microphones up around the whole studio – footsteps, rain, wind, talking, bugs and birds all played their part. Archival tapes of Otha and R.L. fell right into the pocket as soon as we transferred them, laughing, joking and jamming with their kids – transcending time and space, life and death.”
The title World Boogie Is Coming Cody reveals comes straight from Jim Dickinson’s valedictory sign off, “Naming this record after his closing phrase seemed like a great way to honour him and his memory. World boogie is coming is also a rallying cry. And the cry is this: It’s time to boogie!” Amen to that! Now where are those socks?
Review by: Simon Holland
Meet Me In The City
Rollin ‘n Tumblin
UK live dates:
Tue Oct 22 Bristol, St Bonadventures
Wed Oct 23 London, 100 Club
Thu Oct 24 Glasgow, Oran Mor
Fri Oct 25 York, Fibbers
Sat Oct 26 Manchester, Academy 3
World Boogie Is Coming is released via Songs Of The South Records 21 October 2013
Order it via Amazon