For Allstars, it's blues

For Allstars, It's Blues

Applying modern sounds and movement is what the group does best

November 10, 2005|By NICK BROWN | NICK BROWN,SUN REPORTER

Trying to classify the North Mississippi Allstars' music is like chasing houseflies: You think you've got them cornered, but they always get away.

The Allstars, who play the Eight by Ten Club on Tuesday, released their latest album, Electric Blue Watermelon, in early September.

Straight through to its closing number, the instrumental fife- and snare-driven "Bounce Ball," the album sounds like something plucked right from a late-night Mississippi jam session. It brings everything from straight hip-hop to folk to a brand of no-nonsense rock you can't help but liken to Hendrix or the Stones.

But at its core, it's all blues.

"This is the main thing," said drummer Cody Dickinson. "We play blues, and ultimately, it's an old-fashioned art form. But what we do best is apply modern sounds and movement to it. It's blues, but you'll never hear a 12-bar shuffle. Not once."

Dickinson, 29, and older brother Luther, 32, are two-thirds of the North Mississippi Allstars. (Bassist Chris Chew rounds out the trio.) Their father, Jim, a Nashville producer, worked on the album.

Electric Blue Watermelon chronicles the band's history, which is deeply rooted in a lively -- if less mainstream -- period of American blues. Having grown up around R.L. Burnside, Otha Turner and Junior Kimbrough, the Allstars know the blues is not a thing of the past.

"Modern blues isn't a resurgence," Cody Dickinson said. "It was always happening. It's changing, and the people doing it are changing, but that doesn't mean it hasn't been there."

It isn't just blues that shaped the Allstars' musical personality. Cody Dickinson said the band's influences range from OutKast to the Rolling Stones.

On Electric Blue Watermelon, rapper Al Kapone and folk singer Lucinda Williams make guest appearances.

This past summer, the Allstars toured with singer/songwriter John Hiatt.

"He's such a strong singer," Cody Dickinson said of Hiatt. "I learned a little about show biz from him. He really brings it when he's onstage, and to do that night in and night out takes so much stamina. Plus, musically he just knows his stuff. You can't mess with that."

Themes of change and loss are prevalent on Electric Blue Watermelon. Kimbrough passed away in 1998, shortly after the band's formation. His Juke Joint, one of the band's hangouts, later burned down.

In 2003, Turner, a personal friend of Luther Dickinson's, passed away. Burnside died just days before the release of Electric Blue Watermelon.

"When Burnside died, that was it," Cody Dickinson said. "It's the end of an era."

To understand how much a part of that era the Allstars were, one must look to whom their latest album pays homage. One example is the multiple lyrical references that mention "Kenny Brown," a fellow Mississippi musician who played with Burnside for more than two decades.

"Luther, especially, wanted to immortalize certain people in his songwriting," his brother said. "We like to tell stories about people we grew up with."

Cody Dickinson also said he considers the North Mississippi Allstars a part of the new blues era.

"Mainstream success doesn't matter," he said. "A blues band like us isn't built to succeed, so the following we've gotten so far makes us happy. But when we write new music, we try to predict the future. I want to write something that I'll have fun playing live six months from now. It has to withstand the test of time."

nicholas.brown@baltsun.com

The North Mississippi Allstars, with opening act Grace Potter & the Nocturnals, perform at the Eight by Ten Club on Tuesday at 8 p.m. (doors open at 7 p.m.). $20. For tickets, call the club at 410-625-2000, visit its box office at 10 E. Cross St., or call Ticketmaster at 410-547-SEAT. Ages 18 and over welcome. ($3 additional cover if under 21.)

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