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North Mississippi Allstars: Boogie Knights

by Alan Paul on March 19, 2014

Photo: Stuart Levine

Cody sits across from his brother on their bus, nodding in agreement. It’s after soundcheck and before show time and the brothers are feeling expansive as they relax.

“Phil Lesh is a master,” Cody says. “Hanging and playing with him was the gig of a lifetime, just a total pleasure. After I was done, I had a completely new perception of what we do. Now, I walk onstage with no preconceptions of what things should sound like or where we should go. It’s like performance art.”

Cody usually sings one song per show, and it’s generally a different song every night. He says working with Lesh propelled him toward the approach. “The point is I’m pushing myself and losing all preconceptions of what I can do,” Cody explains. “It’s more like performance art and less like regurgitating what I learned in jazz band.”

He pauses for a second before continuing: “The payback to dedicating your life to something as abstract as being a touring musician is getting to play with a master like Phil or Robert—or to sit and play double drums with Butch Trucks. These are guys with finely developed musical personalities and visions. We learn so much and have so much fun interacting with them.”

Luther adds, “Playing with Phil and seeing his dedication to sharing his passion and very distinct musical approach reminded me a lot of my dad, who used to always say, ‘If you learn something, it’s your responsibility to pass it on.’ I think that’s exactly what Phil is doing.”

The Dickinson brothers are the perfect protégés for Trucks, Lesh and Plant. Luther and Cody have spent their lifetimes learning from and collaborating with their father as well as Turner, Kimbrough, Burnside and other Mississippi elders. Now those mentors are all gone, and in some ways, their deaths may have drawn the brothers closer, underlining the bonds they share.

“When Cody and I play together, I often think that this is the closest thing left to playing with Dad,” Luther reflects. “I think about that when I’m trying to be musically sympathetic, which is the key to being a team player—it’s the key to everything. I always just try to get in the moment and make something happen, and it’s not about fancy work. It can’t be because what I play keeps getting simpler and simpler.”

One collaboration that Luther leaves out of the conversation is his stretch with The Black Crowes. He toured and recorded with the band for nearly two and a half years through December 2010 but politely steers the discussion away from the topic, without offering a direct comment on his time with the group.

As for old friend Chris Chew, the founding Allstars bassist has opted to curtail his touring and focus on his burgeoning career as a truck driver in large part due to a desire for a steady paycheck. Chew suffered a diabetic coma while on the road in June 2012, and Luther explains, “Chew is healthy and happy. We invited him to join us on our fall tour and have Malcolm play second guitar, but he declined.”

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