North Mississippi Allstars put a new spin on the ghosts of the blues
By NICK TAVARES
STATIC and FEEDBACK Editor
The first noise on “Rollin ‘n Tumblin” is primitive and modern, round and edgy. It instantly grabs attention and sounds like the beginning of a long, long night at the bar.
The sound is Luther Dickinson muffled scream into a diddley bow — a two-string guitar that’s basically a broom handle shoved into a coffee can. Hold it up and bellow right into the can, creating a distorted holler that rattles off its tin sides before it reaches a single coil pickup.
From there, Cody Dickinson hits one beat on the drum, and the band is off. It’s a rollicking run through a blues standard smacked with innovative touches and stripped down soul. It’s the sound of the blues underground, the past colliding with the future. And it’s on this that World Boogie Is Coming, the seventh album from North Mississippi Allstars, bursts away from being just another solid album by a sturdy band. It’s a declaration of ambition and an effort to bring everything the band loves about its roots into the present.
All these styles and sounds, new and old, modern and archaic, are smashed together into one long document that reads like a Southern blues answer to Sandinista. Snatches of R.L. Burnside and T Model Ford clash against turntables, washboards and bass drums are run through effects pedals, cigar boxes and coffee cans are as important as amped-up Gibson guitars. Where World Boogie Is Coming is faithful is in its dedication to the music of the Mississippi hills and its reverence to some of the scene’s legendary figures. Where it’s groundbreaking is in how fresh it all feels spun through the Dickinsons’ soul-boogie groove and spread across its sprawling sides.
Incorporating blues standards in a modern setting isn’t exclusive to North Mississippi Allstars, of course. It’s a rock tradition that began with the British invasion and has extended up through to today, with the Black Keys and Jack White as today’s most prominent practitioners. But the Dickinsons hail much closer to the source, growing up under the wing of the late Jim Dickinson and having Burnside’s sons work with the band here and in the past. If not ownership, there’s a sense of kin to these icons that other bands might not feel.
So incorporating Burnside himself in “Get The Snakes Out the Woods” before jumping into a version his “Snake Drive” seems more authentic than it would gimmicky. But that’s reading into it after the fact. In the moment, it’s an aural collage that twists the familiar timbre of Burnside’s warm voice right into Luther Dickinson’s guitar that’s at once traditional and groundbreaking.
It happens all over. Luther jams on a two-string diddley bow while brother Cody bashes away on that oversized bass drum on “Rollin ‘n Tumblin” before the song slides into turntables and flanged washboard, a sound that’s bare bones and still hitting on 21st century touchstones. “Boogie” works the same kind of trick, with Luther’s vocals distorted through a green bullet mic and backed by pounding rhythms and a simple blues lick. On it’s own, it would be a cool tune, but here it becomes a new experience and one of the record’s key tracks.
Figuring out exactly who and what is going on in each song is an exercise in itself. The album’s booklet credits a number of people and the “thanks” go one even longer, but everything blends so evenly and perfectly that distinguishing old and new becomes a parlor game. There’s probably the now-departed Othea Turner’s fife on “That Dog After That Rabbit” and elsewhere, and the various famous voices that enter and exit, but use of archival audio certainly goes deeper than that. Listening to it repeatedly isn’t an issue, so the breakdown comes as an unintended result of its own success.
More than anything, it’s a nasty groove that runs through everything, including the sweeter moments, like their version of Junior Kimbrough’s “Meet Me in the City.” But more often, they’re snarling, as on “Back Back Train” or “Crazy Bout You.” Robert Plant adds his hypnotic harmonica skills on “Jr.” and “Goat Meat,” echoing his greatest Led Zeppelin harp wails. On the epic “Jumper On the Line,” several of the record’s voices begin trading off for a 10-minute excursion into the blues that encapsulates the album’s journey within one song. There are twists and turns, and by the end all the analysis feels secondary to what’s been coming out of the speakers.
And that’s the ultimate success of World Boogie Is Coming. Merely paying homage to the heroes of the form would’ve likely made for a decent album, but the deft touch in making the old new and the new familiar takes it beyond just a genre exercise. It sounds good blaring out of the car or off a turntable, and it stands up to scholars and casual listeners.
It’s a record that demands to be played incessantly. That’s the kind of music North Mississippi Allstars’ many heroes made, and in making one themselves, they’ve paid the greatest tribute to those that came before them.
E-mail Nick Tavares at firstname.lastname@example.org