[31 August 2005]
PopMatters Contributing Editor
According to legendary producer Jim Dickinson, the name “Electric Blue Watermelon” was the name of a loosely assembled band led by Memphis musician Lee Baker, who played blues festival gigs in Memphis during the 1960s: “Hipster, hippies, and rock musicians historically interacted with Delta and Hill Country masters and the creative flow went in both directions.” Anyone who saw the North Mississippi Allstars perform their jubilant set at 2004’s Bonnaroo festival, or heard the same performance on the highly enjoyable live document Hill Country Revue, is well aware of how the band loves to follow the example of the Electric Blue Watermelon, paying homage to their blues idols while bringing in younger guest musicians, making for a friendly, collaborative performance. At the Bonnaroo performance, for instance, you’d have the great R.L. Burnside cheering on young Cody Dickinson as his throttled away, John Bonham style, at his drum kit; another moment, you’d have the Rising Star Drum and Fife band following in the footsteps of the late, legendary Otha Turner, and the next, Burnside’s grandson Cody would be adding hip hop elements to an original blues composition.
No blues band marries the past and the present the way the North Mississippi Allstars do, and while they have a strong reputation as a great live act, their studio recordings have taken fans on a slightly different journey. The highly energetic 2000 debut Shake Hands With Shorty consisted entirely of energetic performances of Hill Country blues numbers by Mississippi Fred McDowell, R.L. Burnside, and Junior Kimbrough. 2002’s 51 Phantom boldly added more distortion, and more of a Southern rock element, while 2003’s Polaris headed in a completely different direction, as the trio, led by guitarist Luther Dickinson and his brother, drummer Cody, delivered a very confident slice of melodic rock, heavily inspired by Big Star and the Replacements, both of whom were produced by their father Jim. Live albums always seem to signal the closing of a chapter in a band’s career and the start of a new one, and to nobody’s surprise, the follow-up to Hill Country Revue has the ever-crafty Allstars taking listeners on a few more sharp turns.
Essentially, Electric Blue Watermelon expertly combines elements of the previous three albums with a few cool new additions, making for not only the most diverse concoction of blues and rock the band has recorded to date, but also their best album so far. It’s all there on the explosive reworking of the American folk standard “Mississippi Bollweevil”, as the band attack the song with the kind of reckless abandon they displayed on their breakthrough cover of “Shake ‘em on Down”. Luther’s vocal phrasing channels another Mississippi legend, Charley Patton, the primary dobro melody echoed by a snarling, distorted slide guitar, as Cody sets up a thumping backbeat, enhanced by washboard and the Rising Star band, all anchored by bassist Chris Chew, who delivers one nasty mother of a blues-funk bassline. It’s the kind of ferocious performance that first turned heads five years ago, and fans will be thrilled to hear the band has returned to that form once again.
With Jim Dickinson behind the board again, his boys continue to draw inspiration from their dad’s recording past. Jim played on the Rolling Stones’ Sticky Fingers album, and at times, Electric Blue Watermelon hints at the raunchy sounds of the late ‘60s/early ‘70s-era Stones. Luther’s lithe riffs on “Teasin’ Brown” seem to mimic the laconic cool of Keith Richards, while the uproarious “Bang Bang Lulu”, with its sing-along chorus and mammoth percussion by the Rising Star band, could pass for an out-take from a Muscle Shoals Stones session from 35 years ago. If those tracks aren’t blunt enough, the tight, Hendrix-inspired funk of “Stompin’ My Foot” takes the cake, Luther letting loose a free-form solo as hip-hop artist Al Kapone offers his own deliciously lascivious commentary.
For all their energy, every raucous performance is offset by a more tender song, and it’s on those latter tracks where the real heart of the album lies. The hip hop laced “No Mo” proves to be the boldest song on the album, as Luther reminisces bittersweetly about he and his brother’s childhood, musing, “We used to climb the walls/ Juiced up on Kool-Aid, caffeine/ Running wild, pumping through our veins,” as Al Kapone appears during the chorus, adding bleakly, “It ain’t the same no more.” The sweet “Hurry Up Sunrise” features a lovely duet between Luther and the charmingly marble-mouthed Lucinda Williams, while the wistful “Moonshine” has Luther looking back at his Hill Country past, from sunny picnics to late night, booze-fueled juke joints, his slide solo his best and most beautiful on the record. It’s “Horseshoe”, a loving tribute to their late friend and mentor Otha Turner, that showcases the band at their most sincere. Bookended by an aching, yet uplifting New Orleans jazz funeral dirge by the Dirty Dozen Brass Band, the trio provide a gentle, rustic backdrop, Luther singing of the music and countryside of Northern Mississippi, as a lone, ghostly fife starts up, culminating in the hymn-like refrain, “Times that been/ Won’t be no more.”
As eclectic as Electric Blue Watermelon is, the North Mississippi Allstars won’t let us forget that they remain a scorching jam band, as the seven-minute “Mean Ol’Wind Died Down” attests; built around the same melody as “Horseshoe”, the brothers Dickinson and their buddy Chew slowly build a crescendo, culminating in an ebullient burst of soloing. To their credit, the Allstars never resort to indie rock gimmickry to get their message across; they will never be as trendy as the White Stripes, the Black Keys, or My Morning Jacket, but by tastefully adding contemporary sounds to an otherwise rigid form of traditional American music, performed with great passion and respect for the past, their reputation as the leading creators of modern blues remains firmly intact.