All photos by Ebet Roberts
Word was out on the streets that Luther Dickinson was coming to town. As two men excitedly walked by me, one said to the other: “We’re right on time, we’re doing OK.” I guessed where they were headed, and said Hello. “LOO-tha, you like LOO-tha too? He’s fantastic!” the man told me in the unmistakable accent of New York, my hometown. Yes, seeing Luther DIckinson in Manhattan is not like seeing him in Memphis or Mississippi.
And fantastic he was of course, captivating the City Winery sellout crowd with his southern style and songs, both from his back catalog and from his new record, Blues & Ballads – A Folksinger’s Songbook: Volume 1 & II, which, like his live performance at City Winery, is a loving homage to Luther’s late father, the incredible producer Jim Dickinson. It is also a paean to Memphis, Mississippi, all the other family, friends and fellow musicians like the iconic Mavis Staples, who appear on the new record, and the legendary Otha Turner, who helped mold Luther into the dynamo that he is today.
Luther explains: “The songs themselves tell the story of growing up in a modern day rural South among first-generation Memphis rock ‘n’ rolling, song collecting, folk bohemians, disapproving pre-rock ‘n’ roll holy rollers, and citified punk rockers and modern day blues giants, experiencing the miracle that was Fat Possum Records and Hill Country Blues in the ’90s, singing songs in a language near extinction, barely pre-internet, when community, word of mouth, firsthand experience, books, records and art still ruled. When the elders begin passing on, these family, friends and heroes should be made into folk heroes and their vernacular and stories should be sung.”
Dickinson’s touring band is a microcosm of the record, featuring Memphis’ Amy LaVere on upright bass and vocals and Austin’s Will Sexton on guitar and vocals. They opened the show as a duo that made an immediate mark on the crowd. Sharde Thomas, of Mississippi, joined on drums, fife and vocals. Thomas, who is Otha Turner’s granddaughter, met Luther when she was just nine years old and Luther was playing music on Otha’s porch. She was already a music prodigy and, as Luther learned from his father Jim, Sharde learned well from grandad. All in the family, indeed.
The show blended past and present, especially as Dickinson played his stripped-down songs solo, but the evening was special in many ways and the audience felt it. Dickinson’s new record will be released this week, and Amy LaVere and Will Sexton’s side project, Motel Mirrors, has a new record to be released this spring. Luckily, you don’t have to wait long to see them. They’re touring the East Coast for two months, and will be in Brooklyn in early March.
As I enjoyed a nightcap at the antithesis of City Winery, the Rabbit Club, a basement dive bar a mile away, the bartender asked where I’d been. When I told him, he laughed and said he thought that’s where his other customers, across the bar from me, came from, too. “LOO-tha, he was AWE-some! And, that Amy LaVere, wow, I didn’t know her before, but she was incredible!” New Yorkers exhibiting our good taste, digging Luther Dickinson, man of the streets of Memphis, Mississippi and Manhattan.