Manic cotton field psychadelia
The North Mississippi Allstars sprang fully formed from the Southern loam of blues and roots rock. They’ve steadily grown roots in the High Country. The musicians stop in Vail for a show at 8150 tonight at 10.
After releasing “Shake Hands with Shorty,” their debut album, Rolling Stone’s David Fricke described the Allstars as “pureeing historical precedent into exuberant modernism – manic cotton field psychedelia.” Where does a band go from there?
On to a second and third album. “Polaris” is their latest.
“The first records were building blocks,” guitarist/singer Luther Dickinson said. “We’ve been thinking and talking about Polaris since 1999. We were on a three-record plan, and we always knew that number three would be our most ambitious album.”
Luther and his brother, drummer/pianist/vocalist Cody Dickinson grew up in music. Their father, Jim, is a Memphis producer. As soon as they were old enough to travel, Jim would pile his boys in the car and haul them up to Ardent Studios, where some of his landmark sessions had taken place, to watch him lay down tracks.
“We must have seen a hundred sessions,” Cody remembers, “the cream of the crop in Memphis. We saw our dad work with the Replacements and Spiritualized. I was so small at the time that it was like going into a spaceship to see all this stuff.”
The brothers formed a punk trio, DDT, with bassist Paul “Snowflake” Taylor, which evolved into an acoustic version, Gutbucket. Gutbucket allowed them to tap into their Southern musical heritage.
When they backed bassist Chris Chew, performing as a solo artist at his high school homecoming dance, their punk and roots influences came together, and the North Mississippi Allstars were born.
From 1996, when they played their first gig on a bill with 91-year-old fife-and-drum corps legend Otha Turner and blues giant R. L. Burnside, the Allstars nurtured their association with the traditions that had nourished their part of the country. Turner and Burnside’s impact, along with that of Junior Kimbrough, Mississippi Fred McDowell and countless lesser-known performers, enriched their first two albums, both of which garnered Grammy nominations and lavish media praise.
Although the regional scene is essential to their roots as musicians, the Allstars have always been about much more than just the blues. From hard-core to punk rock to British rock to the latest acts on MTV, the Dickinsons and Chew have absorbed a wide variety of music and filter it through their own sound.
A major step in the evolution of that sound came in September 2001 when the trio welcomed guitarist Duwayne Burnside, R. L.’s son, as a full member. With this decision, the Allstars were finally poised to bring Polaris to life.
“Duwayne and I were already really good friends when it came together,” Cody says. “We were at Otha Turner’s (annual) picnic. It was raining like hell, and we were all playing inside a tent. Luther and Duwayne were playing guitar together, we were doing boogie, and it was red hot. Otha told me and Duwayne that we should stick together, and it’s true: He fit right in, and we’re stronger now than we ever were.”
With the new guitarist came a more collaborative approach that would lead to “Polaris.”
“This was supposed to be our most ‘out’ album,” Luther says. “In the end, we took everything we can do – Hill Country blues, gospel, psychedelic pop, and everything else – and used it to nail down a whole new kind of Southern Rock. And we don’t feel bashful about it at all. This is the best stuff we’ve ever done, because we were definitely not scared of taking chances. This record is honest and from the heart.”