North Mississippi All-Stars
Electric Blue Watermelon
Live at SoGo, Baton Rouge, LA 1/18/2006
It appears that the jam thing is not going to go away, no matter how much many of us wish it to. Honestly, its like Marxism and a bisexuality, I have nothing against it on paper, but the its doesn't work for me on a personal level. Whenever I hear someone whose musical tastes I respect finally wax poetic about Widespread Panic or Phish or whatever, my first reaction is to ask WHY? What in this corny, cheesy, idiotic music do you find appealing. I mean if these bands would live up to the hype of searing live improvisation and transcendental radiance used to describe them, I'd be in. But on album they almost categorically suck giant balls - no disrespect to scroto-felatitsts out there, I mean that in a juvenile sense. For people that are "about the music, man" why do they produce this Adult Contemporary cheese product that has about as much punch as a Toto album. And live, its even more disappointing, hackneyed bar band riffs slathered in needless guitar mayonnaise, garnished with lyrics that wouldn't make the cut in a 6th grade literary journal. I don't get it, and I try to get things, and yet this phenomenon persists unabated. But last night, I saw a glimmer of truth in this sea of ho-hummmery, and that glimmer came from The North Mississippi All-Stars.
The All-Stars, made up of the sons Luther and Cody of legendary producer Jim Dickinson (who has a second life as a meme - he's the guy Christopher Walken is protraying in the "More Cowbell" skit) and Chis Chew, the largest funkiest man to ever strap on a left-handed 5-string bass, are finally an exception to the rule. I'd tried to get into their earlier albums, and besides their The Word, an excursion with pedal steel revisionist Robert Randolph, it never really took. But there I was on Luther Dickinson's birthday, watching him deal out sledgehammer riffs and Benihana fret action for about two hours straight while Cody kept a nonstop disco-soul-0blues tempo on the drums and the big man provided harmony and a gritty, black iron skillet bottom end, and I was converted, bobbing heads in the crowd of gals shaking what mama gave em and guys breaking from the standard wallflower pose to try a couple moves and actually lose their cool. Luther's guitars are a wet dream for a hobbyist like myself, especially the natural wood Robin tele-tyle and the Gretsch solid body he reserved for his laser guided slide work. Dude, the boy can tear shit up, delivering blues shout vocals to keep it together, but not getting lost in bad poetry like most of these bands do. Highlights of the show were hard to discern due to the seemingly endless stream from his fingers, but here is a stab: The medley of RL Burnside songs delivered with the simple malevolence the late blues man was renowned for, especially "Po Black Mattie" and "Goin Down South", a bizarre but surprisingly engaging washboard-through-effect pedals rave-blues number by Cody, and "No Mo" the big indie hit off their latest album. The show was a supernova of blues-rock, one that showed why this music persists, and how it ought to be done. Its funky, its heavy, its virtuoso moments are undeniable, but they remember the most important element - they rock.
Now their latest album, Electric Blue Watermelon. Its got one of those asinine hippie rock cartoon album covers that looks like its trying to be one of Pedro bell's Genius magic Marker and PCP Funkadelic album covers, but isn't. It looks uncertain from the start, but we know about judging and books and covers, so I go in unafraid. The All-Stars manage to avoid the traps mentioned in the opening salvo (except on the two-fer "Moonshine" and "Hurry Up Sunrise (featuring Lucinda Williams, even, who can't save it) which fall flatter than Trey Anastasio's singing voice) with barnstormers like the talkbox-infused funkathon "Stompin' My Foot" and railroad hammer blows like "Bang Bang Lulu" which sounds a lot like the Rolling Stones run through a still and a megaphone - its excellent. You don't get the extended guitar heroics on the album, but you do get a little more nuance like the novena candle burn of "Mean Ol' Wind Dies Down" and the jazz funeral acoustic blues gem "Horseshoe." Also noteworthy is the Alan Lomax moment with Otha Turner and his Drum and Fife choir amongst the frogs and crickets, right before ol' Otha went on to Glory on the final track "Bounce Ball." Its more along the lines of cultural touism than realizing an influence, but its still a good track nonetheless. More and fitting reverent is the opening blistering take on Charley Patton's "Mississippi Boll Weevil" where they augment Patton's devil music with an undefatiguable gritty stomp.
I just wish these guys would record their albums live, because the energy, the synergy, even the gee whiz factor of their interplay is palpable like good barbecue sauce. Seriously, go see them live and leave your i-hate-normal-people hipster credential back home on your IKEA nightstand, they are perfect concoction, and should the bar have 3-for-1 drink specials like this place did last night, go ahead and buy the CD to, its not godhead stuff like their live performance, but its still a lot more vital and real than anything else with "jam" attached to it.
Alex V. Cook listens to everything and writes about most of it. His latest book, the snappily titled Louisiana Saturday Night: Looking for a Good Time in South Louisiana's Juke Joints, Honky-Tonks, and Dance Halls is an odyssey from the backwoods bars and small-town dives to the swampside dance halls and converted clapboard barns of a Louisiana Saturday Night. Don't leave Heathrow without it. His first book Darkness Racket and Twang is available from SideCartel. The full effect can be had at alex v cook.com
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