Rising out of the Mississippi hill country earlier this year on the strength of an engaging if uneven debut album, Shake Hands with Shorty, and some overripe hype (a Time magazine spread a few months back was so heavy on down-home mystique that it should have made any actual Southerner worth his or her salt want to puke), the North Mississippi Allstars have become something fairly extraordinary: a genuine scene-busting phenomenon. A twentysomething three-piece made up of brothers Luther and Cody Dickinson (sons of legendary producer and raconteur Jim Dickinson) and gospel-schooled African-American bassist Chris Chew, the North Mississippi Allstars may be the only band in the land equally popular with, and comfortable among, altrockers and jam-band aficionados. Who else puts out a record that gives special thanks to alt-god Beck and the noise-punk Jon Spencer Blues Explosion as well as New Orleans funkateers Galactic and jam-friendly jazzers Medeski, Martin & Wood?
Like the early Rolling Stones -- in form if not musicianship or cultural import -- the Allstars proffer a genuine white-rock take on a blues tradition they dearly love. In this case that tradition isn't the overdone twelve-bar Delta-to-Chicago style, but the lesser-known and more contemporary rhythmic drone of the band's north Mississippi home. Eight of the ten songs on Shake Hands with Shorty come from either the late Mississippi Fred McDowell or modern-day hill-country blues practitioners R.L. Burnside and the recently deceased Junior Kimbrough, though the band fares much better on the McDowell material.
The record's opening McDowell tune, Shake 'em on Down, begins the album on a high note it can't quite sustain. Cody Dickinson lays down some pure hip-hop beats before brother Luther chimes in with ringing slide-guitar runs; the sound is honestly junkyard where cleaner styles from other young hotshots are pure daiquiri bar. The record then opens up with the Dickinson boys and Chew trading off lines like backwoods Beastie Boys. Before the chaos subsides, the band has even spiked the mix with fife samples from Othar Turner's Everybody Hollerin' Goat, a recorded document of the elderly master of a specifically hill-country art form that was produced by Luther Dickinson himself. Shake 'em on Down is so thrilling in part because the band never strays from its commitment to the rhythmic essentials of the music. Luther's solo is locked into the song, a brief sojourn leading right out of the groove and right back into it.
At the North Mississippi Allstars' best, this focus on rhythm and riff is what distinguishes them from the formless noodling of the jam bands with which they so frequently share stages. And then there are moments when they succumb to formless noodling themselves. This tendency sucks most of the power from their take on Burnside. On Burnside's Po Black Maddie, Luther starts out with a nimble interpretation of one of Burnside's trance-inducing riffs while Chew chugs along with some train-engine bass, and the two serve up some nicely understated harmony vocals. But it all falls apart at the three-minute mark, when Luther takes off on a long, tepid guitar solo that's way more Blues Traveler than blues and then segues into another Burnside song, Skinny Woman, which itself dissolves into the same kind of polite navel-gazing guitar exploration before getting cut off by -- you guessed it -- a drum solo! (Somebody confiscate these guys' Allman Brothers records already.) When this happens in concert, it's a great time to head back to the bar or to the bathroom -- just be sure to get back before Luther gets his head straight and brings back that trance riff.
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But the other high point on Shake Hands with Shorty, and maybe the one that most distinguishes the band from its competition, is their take on K.C. Jones (On the Road Again), a blues story-song credited to Memphis legend Furry Lewis. With the younger Cody Dickinson taking over lead vocals, it's a performance that is relaxed and fun, goodhearted, and entirely natural. It's clear here that, despite legitimate sonic quibbles, the North Mississippi Allstars are the only young (mostly) white blues band that gives the music its due. In a recent climate that's offered a false choice between the virtuosic bar blooze of Jonny Lang/Shannon Curfman/Kenny Wayne Shepherd and the irony-infested rave-ups of Jon Spencer, the North Mississippi Allstars offer a third way (even if most listeners interested in hearing old blues taken somewhere new should head straight to the Alvin Youngblood Hart and Corey Harris sections in their local record store).
Despite occasional lapses the Allstars communicate a love of blues as music and language -- as the art it is -- without getting too bogged down in suffocating respect, instrumental self-regard, or pomo posing. Their take on the Lewis classic also situates the roots of the band in obscure Memphis white-boy blues bands of the Seventies, like their father's Mud Boy and the Neutrons and contemporaries Moloch, whose own take on Casey Jones seem closest to the Allstars' version.
With their jam tendencies and compositional deficiencies (Shake Hands with Shorty is all covers, though word has it that the followup will debut original material), the North Mississippi Allstars aren't the young blues band of dreams. I wish I were more convinced they're the next CCR than I am that they're the new Canned Heat. But when their chops, taste, and heart are properly aligned, they still conjure a pretty inspirational racket. And as an interracial embodiment of New South culture, I'll take them over Hootie and the Blowfish any day.
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