North Mississippi Allstars send off their father in style
By NICK TAVARES
STATIC and FEEDBACK Editor
One of the more appealing aspects of North Mississippi Allstars is the sincerity they bring to their music. They're blues, bred in the South, through and through, and they treat the form with respect, stopping just short of serving as a revival act.
The songs on Keys to the Kingdom have that born-in-the-dirt country feel, back porch playing channelled through three tremendously talented musicians. Luther's guitar work is as solid as ever throughout, and he's enough of a pro to know when to turn it on and when to let it ride.
He turns it on right away, though. The opening "This A'Way" stutters and grooves with the feel of an uptempo Grateful Dead. The guitars are gritty, leaving everything just rough enough around the edges to make sure nothing here is ever mistaken for some blue-eyed soul disaster. Luther's voice is unchecked enough to always feel authentic. It never cracks, per se, but he'll never be mistaken for Chris Robinson, his Black Crowes bandmate. His voice is more than able enough to get the job done, as on "Jumpercable Blues." He brings a nice dose of Southern boogie, with nonsense lyrics and plenty of non-car-starting troubles, likely to plague drivers of old jalopies across the Bible belt.
“The Meeting” is the best moment on the album. Acoustic and driving, it’s the song that gets closest to the source. It’s back-porch and country, and the touches of electric slide give the tune a little more punch. And not the least, but this is one of the few moments where the vocals have an edge. Courtesy of the fantastic Mavis Staples, the whole tune is just mean enough to help it jump off the record.
What sets great blues records apart from the forgettable in the end is spirit. Typically, it’s the downtrodden and heartbroken that makes the great stand out from the good. The spirit here is almost defiantly positive, grinning in the face of the afterlife and what lies beyond. It’s a joyous tone, set in remembrance of the Dickinsons' fallen father, producer Jim Dickinson.
This record was made not as a eulogy but as a tribute. It’s hard to listen to the songs here — “Jellyrollin’ All Over Heaven,” “Ain’t No Grave,” “How I Wish My Train Would Come,” and so on — and not think of the person they’re sung for. It’s a southern spin on an Irish wake. And, certainly, that was the intention all along.
Are they sad he’s gone? Of course. But this record is not made in mourning, but in celebration. Here, they look back on their father and teacher and pay forward the musical lessons he bestowed for so much of his life. The sincerity they’re known for is here on Keys to the Kingdom, and the elder Dickinson helps bring the spirit. Any record with that much feeling behind it will always be worth a listen.
E-mail Nick Tavares at firstname.lastname@example.org