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.