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Joshua Bell has always relished the showy repertoire that his virtuosity enables, and with good reason. His romantic ascent from Indiana farm boy to esteemed soloist, and his Midwestern good looks place him squarely at the center of popular classical interest. While Bell extends his crossover appeal by performing on soundtracks like the recent Angels and Demons, he has cemented his artistic status by winning prestigious awards, like the 2007 Avery Fisher Prize. His experiment in busking two years ago in the Washington D.C. metro has also invariably led to more intrigue.
For a band whose prime narrative is about one’s relationship with a terminally ill child, The Antlers are capable of a surprising amount of on stage energy. When I first saw them at DC9 I was impressed at how well the sad, haunting melodies worked live, but to be fair DC9 is tiny. 9:30 Club, on the other hand, represented a bigger challenge, one front man Peter Silberman and band met but didn’t exactly tear up. For big Antlers fans like myself, the set was great fun, with Silberman’s strong-but-aching vocals, Darby Cicci’s haunting keyboard, and Michael Lerner’s excellent percussion work. But I don’t think they made many converts of The Editors fans in attendance.
The evening opened with The City Champs of Memphis, Tennessee. Their sound—instrumental funk and soul-jazz—was the perfect warm-up for the North Mississippi Allstars and before long the Allstars had the crowd swaying their hips to “Write Me a Few Little Lines”. As it gained momentum it ultimately molded into “Drop Down Mama”, which paired Phish-like harmonies with a jamming southern rock drive all topped off with a Luther Dickinson guitar solo—the first of many.
Luther’s playing had a distinctly curved tone; it sounded as if he was simply bending the strings on his instrument as opposed to picking. At times his phrasing reflected Duane Allman, of the Allman Brothers Band, crossed with a little Taj Mahal. Chris Chew (electric bass and vocals) was smooth yet animated. One moment he would be swinging with the melody before suddenly growing a funky attitude. When he sang, particularly on “I’d Love to be a Hippy”, his voice possessed a dose of soulful rasp.
Rounding out the trio was multi-instrumentalist, and Luther’s brother, Cody Dickinson. Not only could Cody drive a nasty beat, but he completely rocked out on washboard during “Psychedelic Sex Machine”. The results were explosive as he scraped and skidded his hands across the ridges. After seemingly climaxing and exhausting all possible washboard virtuosity, Cody hit the wah-wah pedal taking his washboard shredding to the next level.
Soon after the City Champs joined the Allstars onstage. The collaboration added drummer George Sluppick, organist Al Gamble and guitarist Joe Restivo while Cody of the Allstars joined the Restivo and Luther on guitar. Together the bands projected the attitude, and sounds, of roadhouse blues with a Memphis emphasis.
During the Allstars main set they played nearly every track on their 2000 debut, Shake Hands with Shorty, ending it with a cover of R.L. Burnside’s “Snake Drive”. The band naturally returned for an encore, culminating in the hypersonic “Preachin’ Blues”, each member soloing at a rapid pace, only to unite for a composed ending.
Despite the fact that Roger Miller once sang, “Fame and fortune is the game I play”, recognition and success clearly eluded Mission of Burma during their brief initial run. So it’s hard to resent the band for their decision to reform, especially since, unlike some other, recently reunited, Bostonian indie-rock legends, they’ve justified their existence by releasing three new records that make a strong argument for continued relevance.