Gone Down to Sugar Town
The North Mississippi Allstars
22 Mar 2002: Irving Plaza New York
At this point, going to witness the North Mississippi Allstars live in performance is somewhat akin to seeing god. Now a four-piece including guitarist/vocalist/multi-instrumentalist DuWayne Burnside of the legendary Burnside clan, the NMAS are not flawless but rather perfect in a way that Surrealists describing the meeting of an umbrella and a sewing machine could appreciate. Perhaps Luther & Cody Dickinson ought to steal the moniker Perfect Imperfections from their fellow great southern sonic ambassador Cee-Lo Green.
With each successive Gotham show, the Allstars only seem to improve and mature. If Luther Dickinson’s voice dropped out slightly in spots, he more than compensated with menacing growl and enough benign rock ‘n’ roll attitude to excite. Indeed, the new album’s weakest song, “Storm”, was the only sour spot all night. The band, anchored by Chris Chew with his pocket bass, go from strength to strength and their audience swells to include giddy, tow-headed teenyboppers barely old enough to see over the lip of the stage. This spectacle and more was witnessed at the quartet’s recent Irving Plaza show-stomp. A true all ages crowd shook, shimmied and jumped high into the air throughout the two plus hours of boogie madness. I do declare folks seemed to forget they were on Manhattan Island, indeed that they were even in the 21st century. The magic of the Allstars is that—- although they bring the party with ‘em wherever they roam—- they manage to transport their listeners/fans to the gutbucket environs of their hill country spawning ground.
Shocked I was when a friend related that the City’s classic rock station, 104.3, has had the boys in heavy rotation recently. The Allstars are almost too good for anybody’s play list but their traditional-leaning material is hardly in step with the mental and market monopolies practiced by Clear Channel and their allies. Could it be that the jam and Americana scenes’ best-kept secret is filtering up to the mainstream? Here’s hoping they never lose their ability to render things as sublime as marching with the band toward the “Freedom Highway”, Burnside stepping out on B.B. King’s “The Thrill Is Gone” and a fever-pitch “Shake ‘Em on Down” which sent the revelers’ boogie shoes tripping faster than the speed of light.
Like sonic archaeologists turned hoodoo men, the Allstars live are constantly in process of building an illusory jook temple comprised of the bones of Mississippi Fred McDowell’s plantation-bred desire for flight, Otha Turner’s fife-an-drum funk, R.L Burnside’s jump fire-starters, Dickie Betts’ deep distillation of the southern gothic, Jerry Garcia’s transitive nightfalls of diamonds. Luther’s bottleneck and quicksilver solos call out the hosts of Ancestors to play and commune with their acolytes and us.
Drummer Cody Dickinson even “kept it real” with a washboard solo to launch the encore. Then he switched to guitar and appropriated the lead singer shoes to do Furry Lewis’ “K.C. Jones (On the Road Again)”. By this time, the band had raced and roared through most of their first (Shake Hands With Shorty) and second (51 Phantom) albums, dropping blues-rock bombs without pause until the crowd didn’t know if they were coming or going. “Snakes In My Bushes”, “Drinking Muddy Water”, “Circle In The Sky”—- every head nodded, each and every toe tapped, every spirit wished it was at home in a Mason jar, even the VIP was pretty much silent and intent . . . and no doubt every mackin’ daddy present left to get laid, as the strains of encore “Drop Down Mama” faded away.
The North Mississippi Allstars are brilliant in their raw simplicity, one of the top five bands in the country, their live show virtually peerless. And these four youngbloods are alone in keeping the great blues project viable. Sho’nuff looks like the whole wide world gonna be beating their feet in the Mississippi Mud from here to Eternity.