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North Mississippi Allstars: Keys to the Kingdom
This one’s for Jim—Jim Dickinson, that is, the father of North Mississippi Allstars’ Luther and Cody Dickinson. The elder Dickinson was one of the great unsung Southern producers/musicians and worked with The Rolling Stones, Aretha Franklin, Bob Dylan, Alex Chilton and many others. He passed away in 2009 at age 67 and his sons’ songs take an extra helping of his inspiration into the studio for the latest Allstars album. Keys to the Kingdom is the Allstars’ swampiest, greasiest, grittiest, funkiest—and most heartfelt, poignant and honest—release to date.
Keys is rife with death imagery yet never morbid or weepy. Mortality, salvation and redemption have always been hallmarks of the blues and throughout these songs Luther (guitar, vocals), Cody (drums) and bassist Chris Chew —and an impressive mix of guests that includes Ry Cooder, Alvin Youngblood Hart, Spooner Oldham and Mavis Staples (who testifies on the gospel raver “The Meeting”)—face the great beyond minus the usual fear and dread. “I can hear the hills call out my name/ Going up to heaven for to stake my claim,” Luther sings in “Hear the Hills” over a wall of crunching power chords. In “Ain’t No Grave,” the most direct reference to Jim, he repeats, for emphasis, “I would hope to be as brave as he was on judgment day.” And while he isn’t in a hurry for that day—on the preceding “How I Wish My Train Would Come,” Luther sings, “It’s hard to survive/ It’s a struggle to stay alive, keep fightin’ on till we arrive”—these guys are going to make the best of what time they’ve got.
Though all this talk of leaving the world behind sounds like one big downer, the playing ensures that it’s anything but melancholy. Keys to the Kingdom is teeming with life—and, of course, plenty of licks. The album’s sole cover, a stripped-down take on Dylan’s “Stuck Inside of Mobile with the Memphis Blues Again,” is feisty and raw, and it doesn’t get any more soulful than the back-to-back openers “This A’way” and “Jumpercable Blues.” In the album-closing, good-time country blues “Jellyrollin’ All Over Heaven,” the tag line goes, “Lord have mercy on my sins, open the pearly gates and let me in/ Slipped me through on judgment day when he heard the way I play.” All you can do is admit that that’s as good a reason as any.
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