One of the best days of my life was spent in North Mississippi.
On my way to New Orleans from Nashville in the summer of 2009, I decided to stop in Clarksdale, Miss. It was a little out of the way, but the pulled pork at Abe’s Barbecue was supposedly a game changer, and that was good enough for me.
A little after 9 a.m., I pulled into Abe’s, located at the intersection of two highways, 61 and 49. A crossroads, really. The Crossroads, to be exact.
I had, completely unbeknownst to me (in spite of myself?), stumbled upon the birthplace of the blues, the very spot of lore where Robert Johnson sold his soul to the devil.
All ‘cause fatty wanted a sammich.
I ended up spending the day in Clarksdale, staying the night at the Shack Up Inn, located on the converted Hopson Plantation. After eating my sammich, checking out the Crossroads, the Delta Blues Museum, the spot where Muddy Waters was born, the spot where Bessie Smith died, and the whimsically named Hambone and Cat Head Delta Blues Art Galleries, I had worked up quite a thirst.
I watched the sun set over the plantation while drinking sweet tea vodka and Country Time Lemonade Arnold Palmers out of mason jars on the front stoop of a converted shotgun shack. My drinking companions were a French Canadian couple, two Irish lasses and a foreword-thinking fellow from Knoxville. (He had brought the sweet tea vodka. The lemonade was mine. Kismet.) They had all come to explore the Delta Blues Highway. I had come for a sandwich.
We would end up taking the party over to Ground Zero Blues Club for an epic open mic night, hosted by Daddy Rich, and closed with a set by Mr. Tater the Music Maker (R.I.P), "the last of the true Delta Blues street performers".
The show was to concerts at Harlow’s what that late summer day in Clarksdale was to. . . uh. . .days: damn near perfect.
When I arrived at 10 minutes past 8 p.m., Luther Dickinson was alone on stage, already wailing away, a rack of guitars to his right.
Dickinson is the lead singer of North Mississippi Allstars and was opening for himself.
To say that he is a talented guitarist would be an understatement. The cat is amazing. He played just about every guitar in the rack during his opening set, in all manner of styles.
The first song I caught from beginning to end was a slide blues number about Highway 61, one half of the legendary Crossroads.
He was already on his fourth guitar of the evening when he went into an epic instrumental jam, employing a thumb-slapping technique on the guitar that would generally be associated with electric bass players (think Les Claypool). For a moment the tune reminded me of "Sinister Minister" by Béla Fleck and the Flecktones. How one man with a guitar is able to create a sound reminiscent of Béla (banjo) and Victor Wooten (bass) at their absolute nastiest is beyond me, but, like I said, Dickinson ain’t your average guitar player.
Another high point was his rendition of "Georgia Women," a Hill Country Revue cover of a song by another North Mississippi hill country blues man, R.L. Burnside.
Playing to his audience, Dickinson took some liberties with the lyrics: "I don’t know, but I been told, California women. . . they sweet jelly roll.”
The packed house ate it up.
Dickinson finished off the solo portion of the evening with a rollicking cover of the Big Joe Williams classic "Shake Your Boogie," which got the audience doing just that.
At 8:40 p.m., Dickinson’s brother Cody jumped on stage and took his rightful place behind the drum kit.
Dickinson commemorated his sibling’s arrival on stage by bringing out what I believe to have been his sixth guitar of the evening. This one was a doozy: a coffee can guitar, which is just what it sounds like. A coffee can serves as the body of the guitar, with what looks like a broom handle serving as the neck. Two strings serve as strings.
He played it both plugged and unplugged, holding the open bottom of the coffee can atop his mic. The unplugged stunt proved to be the death knell of the opening set, as the sound system couldn’t handle the sheer amount of awesome going down, and we were hit with a couple shrieking blasts of feedback. On that note, Dickinson put down his Frankenaxe and informed us that they would be back in a few before adjourning backstage with his brother.
Twenty minutes later, the brothers Dickinson returned to the stage, this time accompanied by the force of nature that is Chris Chew on bass. The band was whole, and the show was about to go supernova.
They opened with the revival-esque "The Meeting" off their new album, "Keys to the Kingdom," which is an homage to the brothers’ father, Jim Dickinson, a North Mississippi blues legend and the former frontman of Mudboy and the Neutrons.
Jim Dickinson passed away in the summer of ’09 while the Allstars were on hiatus, Luther playing lead guitar for The Black Crowes and Cody manning the skins for the Hill Country Revue. In the months before his death, Jim told his boys that he wanted them to play together, that they were far better together than they would ever be apart.
"Keys to the Kingdom" is the result of the boys honoring one of their father’s last wishes, and it is some powerful stuff.
After another soulful, emotive track off the album, "Let It Roll," Dickinson bantered a bit with the already-riled up audience.
"This is our first time in Sac,” (raucous cheers). “Y’all feeling alright?” (more of the same). “I’m feeling pretty good myself,” (bedlam).
Up next was one of my favorite cuts of the evening, "Mean Old Wind Died Down," a driving blues track that starts out with Dickinson singing in harmony with his juicy slide licks, before heavy-ing it up with some distorted power cords, then capping it off with an absolutely shredded finger-picked solo.
On a couple songs, big daddy Chris Chew ably took over lead vocal duties. The first such instance was on "I’d Love to Be a Hippy" off their 2008 album, "Hernando." "I’d love to be a hippy, but my hair won’t grow that long," the bassist croons, taking the time between verses to pulverize a rib cage-rattling bass solo.
During a downturn in the especially boisterous "Shake What Your Momma Gave You," a young lady who was doing as she was told saw her opening and took it. "You guys are smoking hot!" she cried out, capping her exclamation with a warbled half-"yeah"-half-"woo": "yeahwooo!" She was right on all counts.
It was as packed as I’ve ever seen Harlow’s on a Tuesday night, and between the musicians on stage and the adoring, pulsating throng in front of it, the room had a decidedly tropical heat. It was a fairly chilly night outside, but inside it was about 80 degrees and rising.
The entire two-hour set was just a series of high points, but a few more moments bear mentioning:
– At one juncture, Chew sat out and Luther was playing by himself. Cody had his back to the audience behind his kit, and it took a moment for me to realize that there was a keyboard back there the whole time. After wailing on the keys for a bit, he switched over to the washboard. I didn’t know it was possible to "shred" a washboard, but Cody did just that.
– A little later during another epic jam, Cody ended up with a guitar in his hands. As he played the kick drum and hi-hat with his feat, he began to exchange licks with his brother until he was playing a full-blown ridiculous solo of his own. Unreal.
– Dickinson’s final guitar of the night (eighth? 10th? By this time I had lost track. Call it a plethora) was another cobbled-together Franken-instrument. This one had a body made from a cigar box and four strings. As he had with every other guitar of the evening, he absolutely dominated with the cigar-tar.
All told, the gathered throng was treated to a solid three hours of North Mississippi mayhem, and by the time they encored with "Talking ‘bout the Ghetto," the crowd was in such a fervor that it almost felt like a revival.
One thing’s for sure: We had seen the light.
Don’t sleep on North Mississippi.