Brothers Luther and Cody Dickinson have always had somewhat of an ambitious plan for their band, the North Mississippi Allstars. Over the past five years, the band’s evolution has been especially smooth, as they keep altering their sound on each release, while still remaining loyal to their musical roots. 2000’s Shake Hands With Shorty focused on the hill country blues the brothers grew up hearing in their native state, boasting energized covers of songs by the likes of Junior Kimbrough, R.L. Burnside, and Otha Turner. 2001’s 51 Phantom had the band proving they were more than capable of composing original blues numbers, and effortlessly blended the blues arrangements with a harder-edged, distorted, rock sound, and last year’s wonderful (and woefully overlooked) Polaris took the sounds of the first two records, and combined it all with a surprisingly sweet element that sounded influenced by the likes of Big Star and the Replacements, two bands whom their famous father Jim Dickinson produced in the 1970s and ’80s. So, as another chapter in the history of the North Mississippi Allstars ends and another begins, what next? Well, according to rock cliché, if you release three albums, the fourth must be a live album.
Along with bassist Chris Chew, and more recently, second guitarist Duwayne Burnside, the Allstars have established themselves as one of the most potent live bands in America, adding some badly needed energy to both the blues and the jam band scenes, and their new live recording, Hill Country Revue, captures that youthful ebullience perfectly. Appearing on record store shelves a mere four months after their recorded performance at the 2004 Bonnarroo festival in Manchester, Tennessee (these boys don’t waste any time), the album isn’t your usual North Mississippi Allstars show, either. A band who consistently performs well as a four-piece, they decided to have some fun on this particular afternoon. It’s all there in the title; the four members of the band bring along all their friends, including the great R.L. Burnside and his family, Luther and Cody’s dad Jim on piano, the late Otha Turner’s Rising Star Drum and Fife Band, organist JoJo Hermann, and if that weren’t enough, Black Crowes singer Chris Robinson.
The resulting set is one with all the musical intensity of a Southern juke joint, but with the relaxed, fun atmosphere of a backyard barbecue. Luther shreds away with his killer slide guitar licks, Cody provides his usual great drumming (not to mention a great washboard solo, where he uses a wah-wah pedal to great effect), and Chris Chew is superb on bass, as the band and guests tear through a set that consists of covers and originals. After a fiery performance of “Shake ’em On Down”, the real fun begins, as the guest musicians sit in; Jim Dickinson takes a solo turn on J.B. Lenoir’s “Down in Mississippi”, Burnside has fun on his original “Jumper on the Line”, Robinson does a good job on the cover of Ry Cooder’s “Boomer’s Story”, and Cody Burnside adds a terrific hip hop element to “Be So Glad” and “Snake Drive”. Still, few bands can jam like these boys, and the album’s two medleys provide the most fun; Otha Turner’s grandsons add their unique fife and drum sound to the Turner medley of “Shimmy She Wobble” and “Station Blues”, while the 12 minute Burnside medley segues from “Po Black Maddie” into “Skinny Woman”, and back into “Maddie” again, with Luther’s slide guitar shining all the while. For nearly the entire set, seated on a throne onstage, is the jovial Burnside, wearing a ballcap that says “RETIRED”, who, when he’s not singing, offers his commentary on the proceedings throughout the show, punctuating performances with a cheerful, “Well, well, well…”
As Jim Dickinson says so perfectly in his liner notes, the band and their friends “rocked like a La-Z-Boy recliner on the front porch of a backwoods doublewide.” Hill Country Revue is warm and convivial, and is loaded with energetic performances, in direct contrast to the usual bland noodling one would hear from, say, The Dead or Dave Matthews. Fervently indebted to their blues roots, the North Mississippi Allstars are never hesitant to add their own musical flair to an old sound, and as a result, their music is always lively, daring, and a wonder to hear. This album captures the band’s remarkable versatility perfectly.