It’s yet another chilly Friday night in San Francisco, but at least the latest atmospheric river has given way to clear skies today. It seems like a fortuitous sign with North Mississippi Allstars‘ winter tour rolling into the Independent in the city’s midtown area on 10 March. The 4505 Burgers & BBQ joint across the street from the venue is doing a brisk dinner business before the show because blues, barbecue, and beer remain a classic trio anytime, anywhere.
Brothers Luther and Cody Dickinson are still riding high on 2022’s Set Sail album, a blues rock gem that forms a zeitgeisty trifecta with 2017’s Prayer for Peace and 2019’s Up and Rolling. Bay Area music fans have also been able to catch ace guitarist Luther Dickinson in recent years as a guest star with the Grateful Dead‘s Phil Lesh at the now legendary but all too short-lived Terrapin Crossroads in San Rafael, as well as with the Allman Family Revival at the Fillmore. This has made the guitarist seem like a family member in the psychedelic rock community, as catching him jamming so vibrantly on Grateful Dead and Allman Brothers music spotlights how those two seminal bands from the 1960s blazed a trail that Gen-X stars like the Dickinson Brothers are now helping carry the proverbial torch for.
The show is billed as an Evening with the North Mississippi Allstars, so there’s no opening act, and they hit the stage promptly at 9:00 pm. There’s no time wasted as they open with the fiery “Goin Down”. Luther plays some sweet bluesy slide licks on “Never in All My Days”, while drummer Cody and bassist Ray Ray Holloman lay down a fat groove. It’s a bit of a change-up from last year’s tour as a quarter with Lamar Williams Jr. on vocals and Jesse Williams on bass, but Ray Ray fits right in as North Mississippi Allstars return to their original trio format.
“Up and Rolling” elevates the party to the next level as the instant classic’s groovy vibe envelopes the room with its ode to “singing blues with our friends” while “tripping LSD” or “drinking mushroom tea”. Luther leads the trio in a sensational melodic jam here, throwing in teases of the Allman Brothers Band’s “Blue Sky” for bonus points. An upbeat jam on Bukka White’s “Shake’ Em on Down” finds Ray Ray laying down a big bass line while Luther throws down some vintage old-school slide guitar. The acoustics at the Independent can be challenging on some nights, but the North Mississippi Allstars really have their sound dialed in just right tonight; they are crisp and clear, and the vibe is high.
The low-key yet melodic “Set Sail” remains a timely tune, with inspiring lyrics about overcoming personal adversity and the larger societal struggle against the climate change crisis. As on last year’s tour stop in Sacramento, it pairs perfectly with the upbeat “Ship” from 2001’s Phantom album as Luther sings of waiting for his ship to come in and how he’s going to keep on walking ’til he reaches the shore and “won’t have to walk no more”. The combo is a stellar showcase for North Mississippi Allstars’ blues power prowess as the trio ride a wave that keeps the festivities going.
“Need to Be Free” features a simmering heavy vibe as Luther tears it up with melty hot blues riffage that recalls the great Jimi Hendrix on power trio blues tunes like “Hear My Train a Comin'”. He’s got that fat Strat tone dialed in well as the jam mesmerizes the audience before the group segue into an upbeat groove that becomes a rocking jam on RL Burnside’s “Snake Drive”. This jam cranks up the energy even higher, with Luther singing “Mississippi loves to party” to what sounds like the tune of Tupac’s “California Love”.
The good times keep rolling with “Shake (Yo Mama)” as Luther encourages everyone to “Shake what your mama gave you”, before slaying some more melty hot blues riffage. The trio rocks out here before a big finish with a tease on a Band of Gypsys groove to end it.
Then it’s back to sweet melodic blues with North Mississippi Allstars’ infectious version of Junior Kimbrough’s “Meet Me in the City”. There’s some real boogie action here, as the feel-good vibe has everyone sharing in the groove. Luther sings the ode to a girl about getting together and making everything alright, generating a romantic vibe. The band senses they’ve tapped into something here as they ride the song for an extended jam of bluesy bliss and a funky outro finish. “Bumpin'” is another bluesy gem from Set Sail, as Luther sings some encouraging lyrics for catharsis: “Make me sing and shout, Cast your demons out, We all need love, Nobody needs to be doin’ without…” There’s some more high-level bluesy jamming here, and the audience is loving every minute.
The North Mississippi Allstars mix it up on Kimbrough’s “All Night Long”, with Cody moving to guitar and vocals, while Luther takes up the bass and Ray Ray rocks the drum kit. It’s a fun romp through some classic blues, with the trio having a great time. “Mean Old Wind Died Down” is played at a low tempo throughout but with a catchy major-key sound that generates a great vibe as Luther sings of wanting to be set free from being gravity-bound and shackled to the ground.
The North Mississippi Allstars deliver an electrifying performance of “Prayer for Peace” to bring the lengthy set to a climactic conclusion. This 2017 anthem signaled their timely shift in a more empowering spiritual direction. The song uses the uplifting vibrations of the blues in a noble attempt to invoke a more harmonious world in which we could all be colorblind, then utilizes the chorus to pray together for peace. “What would Martin Luther King think with the state of the world today?” Luther sings aloud before leading the band through a big jam that brings everyone together under the universal banner of the blues.
The “Prayer for Peace” jam segues into Set Sail’s closing song, “Authentic”, a tune well crafted for winding down a set. The song invokes a similar spiritual vibe as North Mississippi Allstars sing, “Music and love is what I believe… all you kind-hearted people, you’re not alone,” providing some more sonic comfort food. “We don’t care what ya look like,” Luther sings before adding that “We’ve gotta celebrate one another y’all,” invoking a long-time popular message in San Francisco that recalls Michael Franti’s “Stay Human (All the Freaky People)”. The blues jam continues, then shifts at the end to finish with a big tease on Bob Marley’s “Get Up, Stand Up” to close the set on a triumphant note of empowerment.
It’s been a long set that feels like it’s flashed by all too quickly, but when the lights come up after the encore, the clocks say it’s been two and a half hours of cathartic blues power goodness. It’s the longest set anyone has played in San Francisco so far in 2023, and it leaves fans feeling truly uplifted as they exit into the night.
In the extended liner notes from the Up and Rolling vinyl (on sale at the merch table along with the Set Sail vinyl), Luther Dickinson reflects on North Mississippi Allstars’ formative years when he and his brother Cody “had no worldly ambitions besides playing enough gigs to keep from getting a job, making the Hill Country scene, and hanging with our friends and mentors”. These universal ambitions have been shared by multitudes of rock ‘n’ rollers over the decades that have aspired to be professional musicians. So it’s great to see talents like the Dickinson Brothers keeping it going at such a high level.
“The unspoken test was not how well you played, but if you could keep the party dancing,” Luther recollects, explaining the formula that makes the North Mississippi Allstars such a vibrant force more than a quarter century later. The band has played with impressive musicianship but always remembers to keep the party going.
“We incorporated our father’s concept of using roots music as a framework for improvisation and blended our experimental psychedelic excursions into the traditional Hill Country anthems,” Luther continues, alluding to how they’ve used their own psychedelic rock influences to generate a fresh style. “Firing up the tube amps and the old computers, we began conjuring up modern Mississippi music, ancient and futuristic all at once,” Luther writes of the band’s intent with the Up and Rolling album, inspired by discovering a friend’s photos from a visit to their scene in 1996 when the brothers showed him around.
Perhaps this explains what a roll the North Mississippi Allstars have been on with these past three albums, taking a more mature approach with some socially conscious lyrics about humanity’s struggle in this insane world yet still striking that perfect balance with good-time dance music. Few bands are nailing that combo in the 2020s as strongly as the North Mississippi Allstars are.