North Mississippi Allstars 2022
Photo: Jason Thrasher / Courtesy of New West Records

North Mississippi Allstars ‘Set Sail’ to Higher Ground in Sacramento

It’s a rare band whose newer material shines just as brightly in the live setting as their older classics, but North Mississippi Allstars are just such a group.

The live music industry has been on an unprecedented roller-coaster ride over the past two years. The development of vaccines to defend against the worst effects of the COVID-19 virus brought live music roaring back in 2021 after the shutdowns of 2020, only to see New Year’s Eve shows across the country canceled again due to the pesky Omicron variant. Bands are slowly but surely hitting the road again in 2022, and North Mississippi Allstars find California music fans ready to join together in the first week of February. 

The blues-rockers launched their west coast tour in Southern California to support their just-released 13th album Set Sail. The road has brought them to Harlow’s in Sacramento this Thursday evening of 3 February. The venue has a classy blues club vibe with tables on the sides, giving attendees the option of arriving early to grab seating or at showtime to mingle on the dance floor. North Mississippi Allstars have been delivering memorable shows in Northern California for more than two decades, from a hot set opening for Oysterhead at the Berkeley Greek in 2001 to a barnburner performance at Phil Lesh’s Terrapin Crossroads in February 2019 that reignited a Bay Area love affair with these bluesy troubadours. 

Formed by brothers Luther and Cody Dickinson in 1996 to keep pushing Mississippi’s Delta and hill country blues traditions forward in the modern era, the band has achieved the goal by bringing the music of greats like R.L. Burnside and Junior Kimbrough to a new audience. From multiple Grammy nominations to team-ups with a dazzling variety of musical elders and peers, the band’s formula of blending traditional blues with rock, soul, and psychedelia has been a vibrant success story over the past quarter-century.

Guitarist Luther Dickinson and vocalist Lamar Williams Jr. come right out at 8:00 pm as a duo to open the evening with a few acoustic-oriented numbers, and it works as a great way to get the show started. The pair harmonize in a bluesy duet on the simmering “Rabbit Foot” from the new album, generating a vintage vibe. Luther comments in between songs about the aroma of the sweet leaf in the air, which prompts him to joke about how he quit cannabis during his high times as a member of the Black Crowes from 2008 to 2011. 

“Munchies took me out of the game… Who joins the Black Crowes and quits drugs? This guy!” Luther says in satirical self-deprecation, suggesting he gained too many pounds chowing pop tarts and other snacks during late-night sessions on the tour bus.

The main set opens large with the Allstars’ take on the old school blues classic “Sitting on Top of the World”, recorded on their debut album Shake Hands With Shorty. Luther’s shimmering slide licks set the tone for a big night here. The upbeat “Ship” from 2001’s 51 Phantom album keeps the vibe rising, with Williams Jr. doing some soul singing about waiting for his ship to come in and how he’s going to keep walking until he gets to the shore, where he won’t have to “worry no more.” 

The vocalist continues to shine on the harder-edged blues of “Mean Old World”, singing a cathartic number about how mean the world can be “when you try to live it by yourself”. The song turns into an up-tempo jam with bassist Jesse Williams (not related) propelling a galloping groove with the Dickinson brothers here. A theme of sorts seems to start developing with “Set Sail”, as the band builds a mid-tempo groove around lyrics that speak to caution and optimism at the same time regarding how “the water may rise, but we will set sail”.

“‘Set Sail’ really set the tone,” drummer Cody Dickinson says at the band’s website regarding the album’s title track and opener. “It could be taken literally or figuratively. Philosophically, it’s about the way the waters literally do rise. We’re talking about climate change in a literal sense, but it’s also symbolic in a social sense. It won’t be the first time.”

“Bumpin'” is another gem from the new album, starting over a slow simmer as Luther sings of how “Life is but a dream when we’re all bumpin’ together and shaking tambourines.” The album track ends in just under three minutes, but here the Allstars hit the gas to take it for a ride into a hot jam that builds into a Band of Gypsys sounding groove for a big finish that wins a round of cheers from the Harlow’s audience.

“It’s so good to all be together again, thank you,” a smiling Luther says in sincere gratitude to more applause. He puts on a sensational slide guitar clinic on the groovy “Skinny Woman”, with the Harlow’s dance floor getting more and more active. The clinic continues as the band rocks out on the hard-hitting “Snake Drive”, as the energy in the room grows. The new “See the Moon” keeps the energy flowing, as Luther sings out, “People people people, Forget about the news, Relax and come together, What we all need to do” over an upbeat groove.

There’s a great vibe going on as the Allstars blend feel-good party tunes along with more socially conscious songs into a soulful stew that’s both uplifting and cathartic. “Up and Rolling” from 2019’s album of the same name keeps the good times rolling with fan-favorite lyrics about “hippies tripping LSD”, “drinking mushroom tea”, and “singing the blues with our friends.” The song gets some great extra jamming that finds a way into a tease on the Allman Brothers’ “Mountain Song” for one of the evening’s peak moments.

“Mean Ol’ Wind Died Down” from 2005’s Electric Blue Watermelon finds the band mixing up tempos and time signatures with a low-key slide guitar intro that builds into a sweet mid-tempo jam. Luther is like a Jedi slide master here, with a bluesy tone science that makes every note shimmer and shine as the rhythm section swings the beat back and forth for another one of the set’s best jams.

There’s some sublime synchronicity for those who find themselves sipping a can of “Cool Kidz Juicy IPA” from Calicraft Brewing when the band breaks into the new “Juicy Juice”, as the Allstars dig into a funky syncopation. It’s a fun song and the solid beer selection at Harlow’s bar scores some extra points here. The uplifting vibes continue on the groovy “Meet Me in the City” from 2013’s World Boogie is Coming, as it feels like the Allstars can do no wrong. 

North Mississippi Allstars
Photo: Jason Thrasher / Courtesy of New West Records

The vibrant setlist from across the band’s 22-year catalog serves as a testament to how the Allstars have helped keep the blues-rock art form thriving in the 21st century with one great album after another. The band’s depth and diversity shine again at the end of the set as the raucous “Shake ‘Em on Down” from their early years cranks the energy level all the way up, followed by the more recently recorded gospel-tinged blues of “Take My Hand, Precious Lord” to close it out.

The encore opens with the new album’s “Didn’t We Have a Time”, a gem of a tune that demonstrates Luther’s evolution into a genuine blues master, with lyrics that pay homage to the transcendent power of the music and the regenerating cycles of life from this one to the next. Then it’s back to full-on blues-rock power with “Drop Down Mama” as Luther sings, “I may look like I’m crazy, but at least I know right from wrong.” The world would undoubtedly be a lot better off if more people only looked crazy but also knew right from wrong, another testament to the wisdom of those Mississippi hippies. 

“Goin’ Down South” concludes the two-hour set in hard-rocking fashion and what a set it’s been. It’s a rare band whose newer material shines just as brightly in the live setting as their older classics, but the North Mississippi Allstars are just such a unit. They’ve been on a zeitgeisty roll with their past three albums, as 2017’s Prayer for Peace, 2019’s Up and Rolling, and 2022’s Set Sail form a trifecta of sorts for blending good time blues-rock with socially conscious reflections inspired by this insane world’s descent into increasing chaos.

“The fear of having my children grown up and asking me why I didn’t speak up for what I believed in has driven me and helped mature my songwriting and solidify my stance. Having kids made me get my story straight,” Luther explains at the band’s website regarding the vibe on the recent material. It’s a winning streak that’s made the North Mississippi Allstars one of the best things going in modern music.