Not exactly Blues and not exactly Rock, the North Mississippi Allstars cleverly amalgamate a multitude of genres to create a sound that is idiosyncratic and extensive. Drawing from Southern Blues and injecting various musical textures, including punk and hard rock, the band mixes the traditional sound with an alternative aesthetic, which could be compared to bands such as G. Love and Special Sauce or The Jon Spencer Blues Explosion. This along with a rock-jam-band consistency, the Allstars have been equated to Phish and Widespread Panic. Following their Grammy nominated debut Shake Hands With Shorty , the group returns with another knockout punch with 51 Phantom .
Brothers Luther (Guitar and Vocals) and Cody (Drums and Vocals) Dickinson have music running through their veins as they grew up in recording studios with father/musician/producer Jim Dickinson. While still in their teens, the two recorded with the likes of rock artists, The Replacements, Mojo Nixon, and Billy Lee Riley. After recruiting bass player Paul "Snowflake" Taylor, they adopted the name D.D.T. and become favorites on the southern alternative circuit. Labeled as a Punk band, the trio recorded and released Live at the World Famous Antenna Club after opening for acts such as The Wallflowers and The Spin Doctors. Always wanting to experiment with new sounds and expand their musical repartee, the band would soon expand to include Jim Spake on sax, Chris Parker on keyboards, and vocalist Kelley Hurt.
Gutbucket , the bands alter ego, was the first indication of the Dickinsons' affinity for Southern Roots music. Performing as a Jug band, the instrumentation was primitive as they experimented with tub bass, washboard, and kazoo. This would also bring a new sound that has stayed with the band since, the electric washboard as played by Cody. "We used have a jug band, Gutbucket, in Memphis years ago and that is when I started playing the washboard. And we were out on tour with Mediski and a kid in Georgia named John Cane saw me playing the washboard and had the idea and made the electric washboard as a gift. I didn't know him at all, I just thought it was so cool and nice, I started playing it on stage all the time, ran into a wha wha peddle and it caught on, ya know people started to like it so I realized there were all kinds of things I could do with it. It plugs in just like a guitar, so those are all like guitar affects that go through the washboard, so its like intro to 'Voodoo Chile' times a thousand." Cody laughs.
The North Mississippi Allstars began as a side ventures for D.D.T. as the brothers' musical appreciation expanded and diversified. While the endeavor was deeply rooted in the blues, the brothers would look to other influences to create a unique sound. "We were drawing from everything from R.L Burnside to Black Flag" said Luther.
The new group would release two independent cassettes (61 Highway , a tribute to Fred McDowell and White Boys in the Basement ) and tour with acts such as Kenny Brown, T. Model Ford and Spam as well as 20 Miles (Judah Bauer of the John Spencer Blues Explosion and his brother, Donovan). However, Chris didn't want to play blues and moved to New York to study jazz, with Kelley right behind him. Paul was not enthralled with playing blues either and left the duo to fend for them selves. Enter long-time friend and bass player Chris Chew to fill the void.
The North Mississippi Allstars currently consist of brothers, Luther and Cody Dickinson, Chris Chew on bass and the newest member; Guitarist Duane Burnside joined the group in 2001, one month after the photo shoot for the new record. Luther explained what Burnside brought to the dynamics of the group "We've been searching for the right forth member for years, we tried a keyboard player but having Duane in there, he's so good and so smooth. And he's just got a nasty, hardcore, aggressive blues sound in his lead guitar playing. Which, ya know is a good contrast to me because I don't play blues, I'm a rock and roller, even though we come from a blues tradition, ya know, it' just who I am, it turns into Rock and Roll. Duane is hardcore blues."
The new group would record their debut, Shake Hands With Shorty , in 2000 and while the CD would receive rave reviews and catapult them to the next level, it was comprised of blues standards. 51 Phantom has a personal stamp on it and contains mostly original material. "The biggest difference between Shake Hands with Shorty and the new record 51 Phantom, the material on Shake Hands With Shorty that we grew up playing and had been live for years, we had to document the material. On 51 Phantom we were trying to stretch our boundaries, we had new songs and we wanted to make ore of a studio record." Says Luther. Cody continues, "We took a different approach while recording 51 Phantom. It definitely didn't span as long as a period of time. We just did it fast. The obvious difference is Luther and myself co-produced and mixed the first record whereas on 51 Phantom we brought in outside help."
51 Phantom has been receiving a fair share of radio play on both college radio as well as alternative rock stations. "As far as radio play is concerned, man, its just been a pleasant surprise from the jump. When Shake Hands With Shorty came out and people started playing that, we were completely taken back and we're very happy people have been embracing 51 Phantom. But in reality we just make records we for ourselves and try and make music we like to listen to."
Currently, the North Mississippi Allstars are on tour and will be playing a few dates with a Gospel project called The Word who consists of the Allstars and John Medeski (one third of jazz-funksters Medeski, Martin and Wood) along with gospel pedal player, Robert Randolph. The ensemble put out an unexpected instrumental recording in 2001 which burned through rock, blues, soul, funk, and of course, grooved-out gospel music. "The Word has been great. It all started, really our whole touring career started back in 1998 when NMW hired us to go on tour with them and open up for them on the "Combustication" tour and there we got to know Medeski. We were all blown away by the Sacred Steel record; it was like this new form of gospel music, just blowing our minds. And back then inn 1998 we started talking about doing the record and it took 2,3 years to get it together then we got to know Robert just before we started recording and invited him in and luckily he joined in with us" reveals Luther.
While considered in many circles as a blues band, the Allstars have a punk attitude with a rock/pop influence, which can be appreciated by both tradition blues fans as well as a younger, more, pop cultured youth. "Sure, we are ambassadors of the world Boogie. Ya know we came up from a community of musicians and different types of roots music, from Mississippi and Memphis. But also I grew up listening to like Black Flag and Van Halen, watching MTV, and hip-hop, ya know and everything, we've always mixed our influences together. Ya know, and it is the type of blues, like the hill country blues is the only modern country blues left as far as I know. And everything else s more urbane blues, Chicago influenced, ya know? " Explains Luther. "Being able to span the ages though as far as people who like our music is one of our strengths and what's going to give us longevity. Because ya know we're not Greenday and Blink 182 who will be like "oh we're turning 30 or whatever." Cody continues with as Luther lets out a hearty chuckle. "Ya know it's true, we have people who are 50 and people who are 15 who like our stuff the sane."
Now regarded as the most innovative and most uniquely alternative "blues" groups (Jon Spencer notwithstanding), the North Mississippi Allstars have only begun to impact the next generation of blues lovers and players with their unorthodox style and approach to this time-honored music. They are doing what bands like Cream, The Jimi Hendrix Experience and Led Zeppelin did 30 years ago; taking the ingredients of traditional blues and making it very much their own. In the words of Luther "It just like in contrast to a lot of music you see these days. This is just an overall positive vibe, ya know. It's not very introspective or angst ridden or angry, ya know what I mean? We're just here to have a good time, play some funky music to get ourselves and the people off, ya know?"
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