Confession time, again. I was not familiar with the band, North Mississippi Allstars prior to receiving an advance copy of their latest Legacy release, Prayer For Peace, but I am certainly familiar with the part of the world they call home. The Hill Country of Mississippi has given us many treasures of the blues including R.L. Burnside and Junior Kimbrough.
The group consists of the two Dickinson brothers, Luther who plays guitar and handles most of the vocals and Cody who plays drums, piano, synth bass, programs, and sings. Together they create a unique sound that encompasses country blues, rock, and even a little funk. Even when they are performing a cover of an R.L. Burnside song, they manage to give it a little facelift in order to put their own mark on it.
Opening with the title track, Prayer For Peace, it is refreshing to hear some country sounds. Far too often that sound doesn’t get the respect I think it deserves. The Dickinson Brothers have constructed a beautiful song that comes at a time when the world can really use a prayer for peace. Luther’s lyrics are to the point and the harmony vocals are sweet on this powerful number.
With barely a pause between tracks, the next number, Need To Be Free, opens with some very heavy guitar and percussion. It’s quite a change from the previous song and one that plays to the blues rock fans. Luther does some very cool guitar runs and for those that like their blues with a razor sharp edge, this one is for you.
Next is a cover of Burnside’s Miss Maybelle. It stays true to the original with some cool electrified country blues. Luther does a good job on the vocals and a great one on the guitar. It’s good to hear this one pulled out and given a new life.
The second shortest track on the album, Run Red Rooster, opens at breakneck speed. It deals with a man running from the police and trying to make his way. The guitar and drums play off each other nicely and the song is fun and has got to be a killer when they do it live.
Stealin’ is a song that has been associated with The Grateful Dead. Both of the Dickinson Brothers have been raised around the Dead’s music as well as that of other jam bands. The song fits perfectly with what they are doing on Prayer For Peace, and Luther’s vocals truly evoke the sound of the Dead.
The next song, Deep Ellum, features Cody on the vocals. He’s got a decent voice, and has some power in his growl. This is another song that has an association with the Grateful Dead and the North Mississippi Allstars do a solid job with it.
The next track, Bird Without A Feather, is a strong blues riff but with a touch of heavy rock overtones. The duo is versatile in what they are presenting on this album, we’ve already had country blues, blues rock, some jam band approaches, and a fairly faithful cover of an R.L. Burnside song. This one might be a little heavy for some listeners, but you have to give the artists a little leeway to experiment with their sound.
Speaking of covers, the next couple of songs are covers of some Mississippi Fred McDowell tunes. The first, You Got To Move, features one of the best known products of the Mississippi Hill Country, guitarist Kenny Brown, as well as singer/bassist Danielle Nicole. Brown contributes some very strong guitar licks and their version is very satisfying. The second McDowell song, 61 Highway, features more great guitar – after all McDowell himself was an amazing player. It’s been a while since I’ve heard anyone tackle this number and they do a great job with it.
R.L. Burnside’s Long Haired Doney is next. What’s a “Doney,” you ask? Well, if I may be permitted to quote Debra Devi’s great book, The Language Of The Blues: From Alcorub to ZuZu:
In their insightful 1997 book, The African Heritage of American English, linguists Joseph E. Holloway and Winifred K. Vasshe traced “doney” to the Bantu words donior ndondi, which mean “a burden or load carried by a woman.” A no-good doney is a lazy woman who isn’t willing to stoop to hard work. By extension, she’s probably earning her living on her back.
The guys have some fun with the song, getting a little heavy on the guitar and percussion. Their version is long on attitude, not that Burnside himself didn’t play with attitude. This one will play well for the blues rockers in the crowd.
One more song on the album with a Grateful Dead connection is Bid You Goodnight. The brothers say they have been playing this song their whole life, and it shows in the tightness of their interpretation. The guitar work is excellent and the vocals are sweet as a lullaby. It’s a great way to end a set, and I might have been tempted to end the album on this song, but they one more trick up their collective sleeve.
The final song on the album, P4P (Remix), an alternate version to the one that started the album. The remix features some programming and some different vocal tracks layered into a sound that might appeal to different listeners who otherwise might not pick up a blues album. The sound isn’t going to be everyone’s cup of tea, but it’s easy to see that they want to use every tool available to them to reach a wider audience.
I like their sound. For a group that’s been around for twenty years, they sound very fresh and not afraid to try different things with their sound. Often an artist will get into a particular groove and stay where it’s comfortable. Once they’ve built and audience they might not want to take a chance on alienating that fan base with something new.
Other artists, and I suspect North Mississippi Allstars may be among this group, enjoy taking different roads on their journey. I repeat, I do not know all of their work at this point, but I’ve been sampling what I can get my hands on, and between that earlier work and this album, they have impressed me quite a bit.
I suggest you do your own research as the group does have some songs that blues purists might not enjoy as much. Judging from the music, the lyrics, and the attitudes of the song, the North Mississippi Allstars have a heart as big as the mighty Mississippi River and talent to match. Go to their website at http://www.nmallstars.com/ for more details and see if you can catch them while they are on tour promoting Prayer For Peace.