North Mississippi Allstars (Photo courtesy Red Light Management)
Luther and Cody Dickinson, the brothers at the core of blues-rockers the North Mississippi Allstars, mostly let the music speak for itself in their show at The Hamilton Live in DC. Joined by bassist and vocalist Taran Williams Jr., it was their first trip back to the DMV since before the covid pandemic. They were also touring behind a new album, Set Sail.
Second-generation musicians, Luther and Cody are the sons of musician and producer Jim Dickinson. You’ve almost certainly heard his playing; that’s him on the piano on the Rolling Stones’ “Wild Horses.” As a producer, he worked with Big Star (on Third), The Replacements, and Toots and the Maytalls, just to name a few. He wrote an excellent autobiography, I’m Just Dead, Not Gone; it’s also the title of his final album, on which both his sons played.
Jim Dickinson had a deep respect for the roots of American music, especially the blues. In his book, he talks about making pilgrimages to major sites in its history. His adult life — where he raised his sons — was largely spent in Memphis, and he made great efforts to immerse them in the surrounding North Mississippi hill culture and its blue music. Luther and Cody grew up around figures like Junior Kimbrough, to whom they paid tribute with a cover of his “Please Don’t Leave Me” at The Hamilton Live on Oct. 8. They also covered another great Hill country bluesman, R. L. Burnside, with “Poor Black Mattie,” as well as Howlin’ Wolf’s “Killing Floor.”
The evening’s set also included a cover of the Grateful Dead’s “Deep Ellum Blues.” The Allstars are considered a jam band, but they’re not one I would’ve said I saw as particularly similar to the Dead. The Dead incorporated a lot more country into their style, with Jerry Garcia’s electric guitar playing influenced by his background on the banjo; the Allstars are firmly planted in the blues. AllMusic lists Burnside and Kimbrough as influences, along with — as I expected — the Allman Brothers, the Stones, Cream, bluesmen Otha Turner, New Orlean’s the Meters and the Dirty Dozen Brass Band, Big Brother & The Holding Company (Janis Joplin’s backing band), blue-eyed soul man Dan Penn, and, surprisingly, the Replacements — but not the Dead. Their cover of this song didn’t sound much like the original (or the numerous live versions recorded over the years).
Watch North Mississippi Allstars cover “Deep Ellum Blues” by the Grateful Dead for Relix Studio Sessions on YouTube:
Mavis Staples got a shot out from Luther, too. Introducing “The Meeting,” he told the audience, “This goes out to the queen of our fair country, Miss Mavis Staples.” The crowd knew what was up and gave Mavis her respect. Before “Call That Gone,” he said “I tried to get my kid a big wheel. They don’t the Green Machine anymore.”
The set began with “Goin’ Down South.” Cody and Taran would take vocals on some of the songs in addition to Luther; I didn’t catch who was singing on “I Ain’t Superstitious.” A sizable crowd in the pit moved and grooved to “Bumpin'” and “Up & Rollin.” Other songs included “Outside” and the title track of their latest record, with the set ending with “Shake ‘Em on Down.” Including the encore, the trio played for more than two hours.
Throughout the set, Luther was effusive in his praise for the venue and his gratitude for the fans for coming out to see them. He also thanked the truck driver who gets their equipment from gig to gig.
Stream Set Sail by the North Mississippi Allstars on Spotify:
These guys can really play; Luther is especially well known for his guitar work, and he has been in and helmed various side projects, including solo LPs, an album with David Hidalgo of Los Lobos (Three Skulls and the Truth), and a great album featuring female Americana singers (Sisters of the Strawberry Moon).
Whatever he’s doing, all of Luther’s projects are high quality and fun to listen to; he’s a great musician who knows how to bring the party. Every time the North Mississippi Allstars are in town, it’s a party, and Saturday evening at The Hamilton Live was most definitely a party.