North Mississippi Allstars & Hill Country Revue: A Family Affair at the Fox
It may have been a weeknight, but I saw that as no reason to stay in. Anytime of any day or night is a good time for rock and roll, but last Thursday was a particularly noteworthy occasion. One of the most exciting guitarists around was in town at the Fox Theatre, and I wasn't about to miss him. I'm talking about Luther Dickinson, shredder-extraordinaire of the North Mississippi Allstars, and more recently, of a little side project that Chris and Rich Robinson like to call the Black Crowes (you may have heard of them). Put Luther Dickinson together with his brother Cody on drums, and Chris Chew on bass, and you've got the Allstars, whose fast-paced, down and dirty style of southern rock is imbued so heavily with the blues its to the point where Delta-soul gets leaked all over the stage.
Cody Dickinson and Chris Chew played double-duty all night, first in guitar and bass roles respectively for Hill Country Revue, then on drums and bass with the Allstars. As true to the country-fried blues-rock niche as the night's main act, Hill Country Revue's twang also includes Hendrix and Allman-esque elements, and a devil-may-care stage persona that screams "we're hear to play music and have a good time, and nothing else!" The Revue boys, including Kirk Smithhart also on guitar, Daniel Coburn on vocals and mouth harp, and Ed Cleveland on drums, played around and showed off a little, to the crowd's delight, delving into extended guitar jams at every opportunity. Cody Dickinson and Kirk Smithhart took turns in the quick fingers spotlight, dueling on a pair of Les Pauls while Chris Chew's über bass made the floors shake. Daniel Coburn, covered in tattoos and sporting a denim jacket with a sizable Pabst Blue Ribbon patch emblazoned on the back, barked out lyrics, wailed on the harmonica, and generally looked the part of classic rock and roll frontman, attitude and all.
As is generally the case with guitars, there is rarely if ever enough of them. Towards the end of the opening set, Luther Dickinson brought out a third Les Paul, and the expanded Revue gang kicked the momentum up another notch, putting the whole music machine into high gear for their grand finale. Coburn whipped out the harmonica once more and made it howl like a drunken banshee, with a look of focused intensity in his eyes all the while. Big Chew on the other hand, was all smiles, apparently digging on the music as much as anyone in the room.
The Allstars came out a half-hour later with only the core trio of Luther and Cody Dickinson, and Chris Chew. With the distortion turned all the way up, and with the deep down gut-punch sound only a heavy weight guitar like a Gibson could muster, Luther and the gang broke out some Hendrix style noise to open the set before tearing into 'Goin Down South' and on immediately into 'Shake' (Yo Mama) with old-school gusto. The band's equipment is appropriately old-school to match. The stage was covered in peeling Marshall amps that look like they've been about fifty years beaten up, and there were only a few extremely basic effects pedals on the floor. But it's exactly the authenticity of the Allstars' dirty old blues sound that makes them so much fun to watch.
Perhaps the biggest reason to go to a North Mississippi Allstars show is to see Luther play. Ripping up and down the neck of his guitar with lightning speed, and just a little sloppiness for flavor (the dirtier the better when it comes to the blues), Luther Dickinson works his instrument with passion and intensity, making it cry out like wild animals in the throws of ecstasy. And even Tom Morello would be impressed by the way the guy rocks the toggle switch. Luther sings well enough too, with a voice that is suitably gritty for nitty-gritty blues-rock, but truth be told, no one comes to shows to hear the guy sing. It is fortunate, however, that the band manages to fire on all cylinders, and he is backed by a band that can keep up, and then some. Chris Chew's bass work is as true blues, and as distorted as Luther's guitar, and Cody Dickinson is as good a drummer for the Allstars as he is a lead guitarist for Hill Country Revue. Chew contributes his share of vocals too, on tracks like 'I'd Love To Be A Hippy,' bringing a bit of his own rock and roll soul to the forefront.
The already tenuously thin lines dividing Hill Country Revue from the North Mississippi Allstars quickly began to break down. First, Kirk Smithhart brought his guitar back out on stage to join the Allstars lineup, and the rest of his band followed shortly thereafter. Daniel Coburn's presence was in and out, kicking in some extra vocals and harmonica on a few songs here and there, while Ed Cleveland and Kirk Smithhart, on the other hand, became something of a permanent fixture for the rest of the night. With two full drum kits on stage, the driving energy of the reconfigured band, which will henceforth be known as the North Hill Country Mississippi Allstar Revue (North Hill for short), went through the roof. Old stuff like 'Shake 'Em On Down,' 'Skinny Woman,' 'KC Jones,' and 'All Night Long' (all off all the Allstars' first album Shake Hands With Shorty) made the cut in the second half, which dwelled mostly in the realm of old favorites.
In a way, old favorites is sort of the theme of this tour for the Allstars, who are out supporting their new live/best of album, Do It Like We Used To Do. It has been a busy (calendar) year for the Allstars, who have released three albums over the last twelve months, including a studio album (Hernando) and another live album (Boulderado), which was recorded at the Fox Theatre last time the band was in town. With so much going on, its no surprise that the band finds themselves looking backwards to their roots on the new album, and on the new tour.
After a monster set, North Hill left the stage and the crowd immediately got restless. After a while Cody Dickinson came out and picked up his electric washboard. Run through a wah-wah pedal, this fun little toy can create some pretty funky - psychedelic sounds and rhythms, probably why the song played is affectionately know as 'Psychedelic Sex Machine.' As Cody scratched on the washboard, Luther, Chew, and Smithhart came back out on stage, with Luther on the drums for the song. After the 'Psychedelic Sex Machine' had run its course, the Allstars plus Smithhart powered through 'Shimmy Duo' and 'Make Me Down a Pallet on Your Floor' before saying goodbye. Prior to leaving for good, though, Luther and Chew came down to the front of the stage and shook hands with their fans, taking one more opportunity to thank everyone for coming.
If you missed the show and regret it (as you should, you heartless bastard!) there is good news. The show was recorded for posterity, and in addition to being available for sale immediately afterward, will probably surface on the band's website sometime in the near future. For that matter, the last show the Allstars played at the Fox was recorded too, and there is no shortage of live bootlegs available on the Internet. In the meantime, the North Hill Country Mississippi Allstar Review is touring the states, so be sure to check 'em out when they come through your town.