Live Music + Gig Reviews

North Mississippi Allstars @ Dingwalls, London

11 May 2011

Judging from the audience in the darkened rock club, blues music isn’t a young man’s game. There are as many bald patches in the room as there are long beards. And there are plenty of beards. In fact, the gracefully ageing fans of the North Mississippi Allstars have enough hair between them to rival a conference of Hell’s Angels or a Bon Jovi tribute act.

Guitar player Luther Dickinson has hair as long as anyone and is sporting shades in the gloomy Dingwalls club – the mark of a bona fide blues man. Though he’s pushing 40, he looks a bit like a young Ozzy Osbourne. Both he and his brother Cody, who plays drums, are dressed in black and have thick Southern accents.

The black clothes are appropriate, because the brothers are showcasing material written in memory of their father, Memphis record producer Jim Dickinson, who died in 2009. To cope with his death, the brothers retreated to the family’s home-made studio, Zebra Ranch, to write songs. The album that resulted, Keys To The Kingdom, features appearances from many of Jim Dickinson’s former collaborators such as Mavis Staples, Ry Cooder and Spooner Oldham. It is the latest in a series that began with the Allstars’ excellent debut, Shake Hands With Shorty, released in 2000.

But while previous albums featured a full band, tonight the brothers are playing as a duo; no bass and no rhythm guitar. It’s a stripped-down, intimate gig that sees them at their most honest and direct. Luckily Luther Dickinson’s guitar playing is thick and rich, almost like treacle, and he is practically virtuoso in his soloing, never putting a foot, or finger, wrong. It is pure expression: rich enough to maintain a full sound even when soloing fairly high up the guitar’s neck.

It is also unfussy. Dickinson’s playing is earthy and authentic, a vehicle for emotion and not for showing off. He favours spareness over technical wizardry. Peter Green, of Fleetwood Mac, was a master of this and Luther Dickinson’s style is somewhat similar. Though he occasionally plays a high-pitched phrase, he soon returns to crunching chords and even plucked country rhythms, with his brother keeping impeccable time and more than accommodating for the lack of a rhythm guitarist or bass player.

The country influence is clearest when Dickinson reaches for the acoustic guitar and plucks away to an infectious rhythm, with Cody knocking out a four-to-the-floor beat. The song is completely lacking vocals but seems no less lyrical for that. One can almost smell the wide fields of the American South, boys coming home with the harvest and rolling hay bales. The music is very evocative of the American landscape.

All in all Luther Dickinson plays five guitars: one acoustic, three electric and one ‘cigar box’ guitar. The latter is a home-made metal box which appears to have just four strings and produces a pleasant resonant sound when he applies a metal guitar slide. Even when playing this basic instrument his mastery is unquestionable. The guitarist is also a good a fine singer, veering from a laid-back Southern drawl to an energetic shout while delivering such reliable country lyrics as “I need your love, just like heaven needs angels above”.

The Dickinson brothers seem pleasingly down to earth. Luther seems genuinely moved by the audience’s heartfelt applause. “Feels like home,” he says.

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