North Mississippi Allstars: Yes, it’s all about that bass

North Mississippi Allstars Duo

North Mississippi Allstars Duo: The Borderline, London, July 18 2012:

I’m not keen on bands without bass players. Specifically, I’m not keen on White Stripes-style duos who pretend that guitar, drums and nothing else is an acceptable line-up.

As an amateur bass player who plonks away in my spare time I declare an interest. But I really do notice when a band has no “bottom”.

So imagine my disappointment when I discovered that visiting blues-rockers the North Mississippi Allstars had added the word “Duo” to the end of their name and left their bassman Chris Chew at home in the USA.

The duo in question are the Dickinson brothers, Luther and Cody. Their dad Jim was a keyboard player and producer who worked with the Rolling Stones, Bob Dylan, Aretha Franklin and cult heroes Big Star. You know the gorgeous piano part on the Stones’ Wild Horses? That was Jim Dickinson, who died in 2009. RIP Jim.

North Mississippi Allstars Duo

Elder son Luther is the guitarist and lead singer with the Allstars, while drummer Cody also contributes guitar, extra vocals, and…er…  psychedelic washboard. Of which more later.

So would this be an evening of primitive yowling and thrashing like the White Stripes? Happily not. Though the sound still lacked a bottom end, the big difference is that both of these boys can really, really play.

I swear that Luther – also lead guitarist of the more famous Black Crowes – manages to channel the spirits of Jimi Hendrix, Freddie King and a dozen more long-dead bluesmen through his nimble fingers and a Gibson 335.

Cody combines the wallop of John Bonham and the speed of Keith Moon with an astonishing precision.

Besides, it’s not like they’ve sacked their bass player. Luther announced mid-set that Chris Chew had been in hospital but was now back home and getting better. Complications from diabetes, apparently.

Midway through the show the bassist from support band Oldboy joined the brothers on stage. Suddenly God was in his heaven and all was right with the world.

I still think of the Allstars as a youngish, newish band and it comes as shock to realise they’ve been around since 1996, have reached the foothills of middle age at 39 and 36, and are into double figures on their album releases.

Their set at the Borderline ranged far and wide over those albums, from the hypnotic Shake ‘Em On Down (first track on their debut) to their bold rewrite of Bob Dylan’s Stuck Inside Of Mobile With The Memphis Blues Again (from last year’s Keys To The Kingdom).

North Mississippi Allstars Duo

Along the way Cody played drums and guitar and sang all at once on a couple of numbers. The way he traded harmonising guitar licks with Luther it sounded like the Allman Brothers were in the house.

And then came the washboard.

Know as a woogie board, it plugs into a wah-wah pedal and who-knows-what other effects to create a sweeping wall of sound with notes and melodies in the mix as well as waves of rhythm.

Not to be outdone, Luther played one number on a four-string cigar-box guitar  and two on a two-stringed instrument made out of a large coffee can and a broom handle. But regardless of gimmicks, it all sounded explosively good.

For the two encores, Oldboy’s British guitarist joined the brothers and his own bass player on stage to perform guitar duels with Luther. He played like a demon even while watching the American’s fingers to suss out the chords.

Oldboy are a bit of a mystery. In their half-hour opening set this power trio sounded like the hyperactive bastard son of Black Sabbath and the Groundhogs. In a good way. Their sound and attack took me and my pal George right back to our teenage years in the early 70s.

But there’s not a whisper about them online and they said at the end they had no more gigs left. That’s a real shame…old boys like us need you, Oldboy!