North Mississippi Allstars: Boogie Knights
Photo by Jay Adkins
It’s soundcheck at New Jersey’s South Orange Performing Arts Center, and the North Mississippi Allstars are working out a new instrumental written by drummer Cody Dickinson, who is playing the gospel- tinged tune on a Nord keyboard set up on the perimeter of his kit. His brother Luther moves along with the changes on his Gibson ES-335 while the band’s newest addition, touring member Lightnin’ Malcolm, leans against his amp and adds a loping, behind-the-beat bass line.
When they get lost for a moment and drop out, Cody keeps running through the changes, now calling them out: “It’s F to A flat to C—hold the C—back to F, G flat, F, E flat, hold the C, B flat…”
As the band settles into the song, segueing from hesitant to grooving, Luther adds some biting slide fills and smiles, as is his wont. “That’s nice,” he says. “What do you call it?”
“Hmmm…” his brother responds. “Let’s give it a working title: ‘Seeing Time.’”
Cody picks up a drumstick in his left hand and enhances the beat on a tom-tom, as his right foot stomps the bass drum and his right hand continues to play the piano. The sketch is starting to sound like a song.
About 20 silent fans take in this scene, reverently listening and watching. They paid extra for a VIP experience that allows them to meet the band and watch soundcheck. Ask any person in attendance and they will say it was money well spent. This is an increasingly popular gambit by bands looking to strengthen their bonds with fans and improve their income on the road, and the Allstars are perfect candidates because they genuinely enjoy interacting with people. They say that the experience has also been beneficial for the group, changing the way that they soundcheck.
“I get full songs out of them now,” says soundman and longtime crew member Randy Stinson.
“It makes us be a little more civil toward each other—and be more creative,” Luther says. “We can rehearse in front of an audience and I think that’s a plus. I was concerned about it hindering the creative process, but it has actually led us to come up with new segues and work up new material like the instrumental. You can get to a place and not feel like turning on and smiling, but the fans’ enthusiasm is infectious. You stagger in and someone smiles wide and shakes your hand and says, ‘I’m so happy to be here. I drove five hours to see you!’”
“That revitalizes your energy,” adds Cody. “It reminds you why you’re here, why you do this.”
Of course, the band probably drove at least five hours to see the fans as well, but that’s different. It’s their job and the life they’ve chosen. The life that the Dickinsons were born into and embraced.
Cody and Luther’s pedigree is familiar to most jam and modern blues fans but continues to influence their musical decisions. Their father Jim Dickinson, who passed away in 2009, was a pianist and producer—a garage-blues legend, best known for playing piano on The Rolling Stones’ “Wild Horses” and Bob Dylan’s Time Out of Mind, and producing the likes of Big Star and The Replacements. As kids, Luther and Cody backed him in the Hardly Can Playboys, before forming DDT, a punk band with a heavy Black Flag influence. At 14, Luther even played a solo on The Replacements’ “Shooting Dirty Pool” off the 1987 Jim- produced Pleased to Meet Me.
About a year before that, the senior Dickinson had moved his family from the countryside east of Memphis to his old stomping grounds south of the city in the North Mississippi hills, with the express goal of furthering his boys’ musical educations. It worked. Luther and Cody became close friends with the extended families of local blues patriarchs R.L. Burnside, Junior Kimbrough and Otha Turner, all of whose droning music—distinctly different than the better-known Mississippi Delta blues—seeped into the Dickinson boys’ souls.
In 1996, the brothers formed the North Mississippi Allstars, a group that pulled together all of these influences, and they debuted nationally with 2000’s Shake Hands with Shorty. That album distilled the magical, high-energy manner by which the brothers reinvigorated the blues with a raucous blast of fun that proved you could be reverential without being calcified. The group incorporated hip-hop beats and speed-guitar runs without ever losing their blues grit and feeling. In the ensuing 13 years, they’ve added more and more elements and played with a rotating cast of bassists and other musicians. World Boogie Is Coming brings them full circle—it’s easily their rawest recording since Shorty.
“Our friend Seasick Steve knows our whole history and he said to me, ‘You’re the one, boy, the link,’” Luther recalls. “He said, ‘You have to keep it primitive and hold up your end of the bargain by taking it to the kids and making the blues attractive again.’ I realized I had not been holding up my end of the deal. The masters took me in and taught me so much—how to tour, how to keep the dance floor packed—and I had gotten caught up in my own songwriting trip. We’ve really learned how to put everything in its proper place. Doing solo records and projects has allowed me to streamline what the Allstars should be. If I have some folk songs, there’s no need to force them into the Allstars just because I wrote them.”
The first song that they recorded for World Boogie was an updated version of the blues classic “Rollin’ And Tumblin’,” with Luther laying down the main riff on a two-string diddley bow.
“We were doing an in-store appearance in North Carolina and my friend handed me a homemade coffee can two- string diddley bow guitar, and I just tuned it up and started playing ‘Rollin’ And Tumblin’,’” Luther says with a laugh. “We liked the way it came out and recorded it at our home studio, which we call the Zebra Ranch Electric Church and Fellowship Hall.
“That was the start of this record, though we didn’t know it at the time,” he continues. “We released it as a single and were thinking that that’s what we would do: release singles.”
They shifted their focus once again when Cody, who has a growing interest in photography, recorded a video for the song, and the process jump-started a desire to record a song cycle that would be a “complete cultural statement.” (Cody eventually cut videos for four of the songs, which can be found at www.nmallstars.com.)
“I’m real big on progress,” Cody says. “I don’t want to be stuck or static. When I see something that’s dynamic, I get excited and that’s how we try to push forward.”
Photo: Andrew Scott Blackstein
When the band hit the road again, they began screening Cody’s films behind them and continued to expand their footage, bringing cameraman Shelby Baldock out on the road.
“He filmed some stuff for us and we said, ‘We’re leaving on tour tomorrow. You have to come with us.’ It adds so much,” recalls Luther.
Every night, Baldock watches the band from the side of the stage and keeps the film synced and ever creative, often including local footage shot that afternoon. The results provide a mesmerizing backdrop. “It really helps the audience’s attention span,” says Luther.
“It doesn’t really influence me—I can’t see it. But I can feel how it influences the audience and the vibe. It keeps their eyes on us, on the stage.”
Cody picks up his brother’s thought, saying, “I got into photography and acting—I’ve been in G.I. Joe and some other films. I understood that we needed a visual element, and I wanted to stay away from laser lights. I hate stage lights. They make me sweat and look bad, and the projections allow us to mostly play in the darkness and to give people the multi-sensory experience they are so used to having. I love that we’re projecting.”
His thoughts race as he continues: “We’re coming to the future, but in such an old school way that it’s really the past, which is just perfect for us. Not only does it add a new dimension but it tells a story—and it looks cool. For instance, in the song ‘All Night Long,’ the movie shows concrete steps and bushes and it looks cool, but it’s deeper than that—it’s Junior Kimbrough’s juke joint. Obviously, most people don’t know that, but I still think they feel it, that it adds to the vibe.”
The Dickinsons’ recent interactions with a trio of musical titans profoundly impacted them. Robert Plant, whose project Band Of Joy they opened for in 2011 and who also plays harmonica on World Boogie; Phil Lesh, who had the brothers play his San Rafael, Calif. venue Terrapin Crossroads and featured them in his revolving groups; and Butch Trucks, The Allman Brothers drummer who the Dickinsons worked with at the Roots Rock Revival camp last summer.
“These guys are giants of rock and roll and they’ve become friends and role models,” says Luther. “Touring with Phil and Plant and getting the chance to see them up close has been incredibly inspiring and instructive. They work really, really hard with total dedication to the music.”
Cody jumps in: “It’s a serious business and they take it very seriously.”
Luther nods his head in agreement and continues. “We were on tour opening for Plant when he was just doing his first shows with the Band Of Joy. And he was putting them through the paces, really making them work and learning a wide repertoire, some of which they didn’t even play. I think he wanted them to have the same music under their fingertips. And what Phil does— flying all these musicians in, working all day learning songs and arrangements, then playing shows at night, then starting all over again with a new crew— requires an incredible amount of work, patience and dedication.”
Photo: Stuart Levine
Cody sits across from his brother on their bus, nodding in agreement. It’s after soundcheck and before show time and the brothers are feeling expansive as they relax.
“Phil Lesh is a master,” Cody says. “Hanging and playing with him was the gig of a lifetime, just a total pleasure. After I was done, I had a completely new perception of what we do. Now, I walk onstage with no preconceptions of what things should sound like or where we should go. It’s like performance art.”
Cody usually sings one song per show, and it’s generally a different song every night. He says working with Lesh propelled him toward the approach. “The point is I’m pushing myself and losing all preconceptions of what I can do,” Cody explains. “It’s more like performance art and less like regurgitating what I learned in jazz band.”
He pauses for a second before continuing: “The payback to dedicating your life to something as abstract as being a touring musician is getting to play with a master like Phil or Robert—or to sit and play double drums with Butch Trucks. These are guys with finely developed musical personalities and visions. We learn so much and have so much fun interacting with them.”
Luther adds, “Playing with Phil and seeing his dedication to sharing his passion and very distinct musical approach reminded me a lot of my dad, who used to always say, ‘If you learn something, it’s your responsibility to pass it on.’ I think that’s exactly what Phil is doing.”
The Dickinson brothers are the perfect protégés for Trucks, Lesh and Plant. Luther and Cody have spent their lifetimes learning from and collaborating with their father as well as Turner, Kimbrough, Burnside and other Mississippi elders. Now those mentors are all gone, and in some ways, their deaths may have drawn the brothers closer, underlining the bonds they share.
“When Cody and I play together, I often think that this is the closest thing left to playing with Dad,” Luther reflects. “I think about that when I’m trying to be musically sympathetic, which is the key to being a team player—it’s the key to everything. I always just try to get in the moment and make something happen, and it’s not about fancy work. It can’t be because what I play keeps getting simpler and simpler.”
One collaboration that Luther leaves out of the conversation is his stretch with The Black Crowes. He toured and recorded with the band for nearly two and a half years through December 2010 but politely steers the discussion away from the topic, without offering a direct comment on his time with the group.
As for old friend Chris Chew, the founding Allstars bassist has opted to curtail his touring and focus on his burgeoning career as a truck driver in large part due to a desire for a steady paycheck. Chew suffered a diabetic coma while on the road in June 2012, and Luther explains, “Chew is healthy and happy. We invited him to join us on our fall tour and have Malcolm play second guitar, but he declined.”
On this evening as the Allstars’ performance nears, Malcolm is onstage as the opening act, playing a duo show with teenage drummer Stud, the grandson of T-Model Ford, who is also responsible for his name. Meanwhile, as Cody paces around and stretches, Luther reclines in the bunk of their bus with a Moleskine notebook in hand, poring through the pages, reading and making notes.
“This goes back to ‘08 and has every setlist we’ve played,” he says. “When I’m putting together a setlist, we never want to repeat songs we played last time in a place.”
The brothers are growing more quiet and contemplative as show time draws nearer, until Malcolm and Stud bound back on the bus. When seen up close, Stud’s youth is disarming. When asked how old he is, he quickly answers, “Old enough.” In an hour, he’ll be jumping onstage and offstage with the Allstars, often parading around with a strapped-on snare drum, and sometimes taking over the kit so Cody can strap on an electrified washboard or a Telecaster.
Malcolm has played bass with the Allstars for about a year, though they’ve known him for much longer. Like most things in the band’s realm, he joined the band organically.
“We live really close together and he began coming over to my Airstream for songwriting and jamming sessions,” Luther says. When Chew took a friendly hiatus, the band played with Pierre Wells and Alvin Youngblood Hart before Malcolm came on board.
“Hell, I don’t want to tell them this, but a lot of people could play what I do,” Malcolm says with a laugh. “I’m really a guitarist so when I play bass, I just play half as many notes.”
“He brings a sensibility,” says Cody. “He knows the music and where we’re coming from, and we learn a lot from him, too.”
Luther and Cody exhibit a natural ease, like the music just flows through them. But it took a lot of effort to achieve that effortlessness, a lifetime of music being their lives, of incorporating their influences so deeply that they become one with them, of thinking, talking, eating, breathing music every day until it becomes inseparable from everything else. As Luther walks off his bus and heads to the stage door to entertain a full theater on a Sunday night in suburban New Jersey, he smiles and says, “We know who we are and what we do.”