Photos by Lou Montesano
The esteemed blues-rock monster North Mississippi Allstars features the spine-crunching, foot-tapping explorations of the Brothers Dickinson, Luther (guitars and vocals) and Cody (drums, keyboards, guitar and vocals), respectively. The latest incarnation of this 21-year-young musical dynamo rolled into New York’s Bowery Ballroom, touring behind an important new album, Prayer For Peace. Accompanied by some of their stellar friends, the result was an electrifying two-hour NMAS tour de force, one of those shows that, in future years, people brag about seeing even if they weren’t there.
Fittingly, Luther and Cody opened the show as a duo, just as NMAS began in 1996. With the first greasy John Lee Hooker riff from Luther’s slide guitar, the boys raised the roof on “Po’ Black Maddie” and didn’t look back. Dominic John Davis then joined on bass for the blues staple, “Drink Muddy Water,” and from there the show just kept getting better. Cody took over lead vocals for another vintage tune, “Deep Elem Blues,” playing both keys and drums while singing.
Luther was in a loose, elated mood, and at one point removed his glasses, tucked them into his shirt pocket and jumped into the crowd, wailing licks from Buddy Guy—who he called “the last man standing, the king of the blues”—before finishing the jam while sitting on the edge of the stage. The title tune off the new album, Prayer for Peace, followed, featuring the line “Mississippi, we all need to be free,” tailored to our pestilential political climate. But at the same time, Dickinson claims, “I got faith in rock and roll.”
The boys turned “Stealin,” the old-timey tune covered by Jerry Garcia’s jug bands and early Grateful Dead, into a crowd favorite before the talented Danielle Nicole came onstage to belt out a soulful version of “You Got To Move,” the Mississippi Fred McDowell tune covered by the Rolling Stones. Nicole continued in the vintage blues vein with a searing “It Hurts Me Too,” the Elmore James number and another tune out of the Dead repertoire.
Next up was the Reverend Osagyefo Sekou, a diminutive, dreadlocked preacher who took the already scintillating show to another level. The Rev is a story all by himself: activist, author, documentary filmmaker and theologian who plays what he calls “North Mississippi Hill Country Music, Arkansas Delta Blues, 1960s Rock and Roll, Memphis Soul, Chuck Berry St Louis vibes, and Pentecostal steel guitar.” Luther and Cody joined Reverend Sekou on his new album, Times Like These, and Sekou is now returning the favor. Getting political in the most musical of ways, the Rev pulled off a revival meeting in the middle of a rock show. “We want freedom and we want it now!” he roared as the audience chanted along. “Resist!” he commanded, and the audience agreed. “We gonna get there,” he told them. “We don’t know how, but we know we will get there. The people gonna fix it.”
Inspired by Reverend Sekou’s religious fervor, the trio lit into “Shake ‘Em On Down” from their 1996 debut album made with the late, great R.L. Burnside, an early mentor and collaborator of the Dickinsons. The telepathic connection between the brothers roared on, with Cody acknowledging Butch Trucks, “my daddy”—Jim Dickinson, a legendary studio musician and keyboardist on classic Stones sides—Bobby “Blue” Bland, Junior Kimbrough and Colonel Bruce Hampton. A titanic guitar solo from Luther was shaded with a Duane-Dickie “Mountain Jam-Revival” vibe before closing the set with Bland’s “Turn On Your Love Light.”
The encores began with a long, jammed-out version of “Hear My Train A-Comin’,” complete with ferocious Hendrixian explorations, followed by Danielle Nicole on bass for Robert Johnson’s “Walking Blues.” Finally, Rev Sekou returned, joined by Sharisse Norman on vocals and Alvin Youngblood Hart, who opened the evening with an impressive solo set, for a churched-up version of Bob Marley’s “Burning and Looting Tonight.”
And so the NMAS ended their riveting revival meeting, or are they just getting started? With their new album and tour, the Dickinsons might have lit the fuse to feelings that will explode and exorcise demons in 2017. Luther, Cody and friends might be harbingers of what’s to come for rock, as in resistance, as in “the people gonna fix it.” These days, when outrage and alarm spreads by the day, wouldn’t it be ironic and fitting for the most authentic and dangerous agent of justice and righteousness to be music made by folks from Mississippi, one of the reddest of red states?