North Mississippi Allstars at Highline Ballroom


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North Mississippi Allstars
Highline Ballroom
New York, NY
February 26, 2010

As expected, in the best way possible. When my friend (a North Mississippi Allstars virgin) asked what we were in for as the Allstars took the Highline Ballroom stage on a snowy Friday evening in New York, I told her some specifics: drummer Cody Dickinson also plays the washboard; bassist Chris Chew is the most demonstrative of the bunch and brings some funky mojo to each show; and lead singer and guitarist Luther Dickinson plays predominantly with his slide and just generally kills it. But the most important bit of warning I gave her was that each song starts out pedestrian enough, but the great majority end up as all-out rave-ups. I told her to be ready to "shake what your mama gave you." Throughout the course of the two hour and 15 minute single set, that's exactly what we did.

The North Mississippi Allstars are a band with an impeccable sense of history. They grew up listening to the likes of Mississippi Fred McDowell, RL Burnside and Junior Kimbrough, and it is that Delta blues tradition that inflects NMAS' brand of boogie-style blues-rock. But on stage, they simply let loose. At the Highline, the band brought a special kind of energy. Luther Dickinson's slide playing alternated from mean and gritty to ethereal (think Duane Allman on the coda of "Layla"), sometimes all in the space of a single tune. And Chew was in fine form, his basslines more out front than usual and his soulful backing vocals the perfect foil to Luther's throaty everyman voice.

The true star of the show was Cody Dickinson. In a power trio format like NMAS, the drums must play more than a support role. Cody understood this, and he played the part of chameleon all night. He was given ample solo space—it's rare that a rock drummer gets more than a single solo during a set—but he also brought some jazz sensibility to the proceedings, often accenting Luther's runs or punctuating his "breaths." Cody also just plain upped the volume. Dude plays loud! And don't even get me started on his washboard DJing—it truly is sampling through a washboard. Amazing. On this night, Cody even played some pretty rockin' guitar and showed off his John Fogerty-like voice.

The sound at the Highline was crystal clear. This is strange for a rock show, and even stranger for a North Mississippi show. Often Luther's guitar is muddied to the point that it sounds like a background instrument—not on this night. Each note that pierced the smoky air rang true, and even when openers The City Champs joined NMAS on stage for a three-guitar attack with keyboards, each instrument was readily discernible in the mix.

The best quality of a North Mississippi show is its simplicity. The music is pure, and it's out on everybody's sleeves. This band will not try to throw you off with odd time signatures. Luther, Cody and Crew are simply up on stage having a good time, and they hope you are too. It's entertainment, plain and simple, but like all great music, it makes you feel something.

In the end, it is knowing where they're coming from that makes seeing this band such a meaningful experience. They bring jamband virtuosity to their shows, but they base all of their improvisations in song. When the band reaches a swirling high off of a simple blues riff, it's the emotion of their playing and not its sheer virtuosity that brings a smile to your face. This band, plain and simple, does not disappoint.

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