Every family has its own holiday customs. For the North Mississippi Allstars, a band whose sound and soul were bred on the grounds their forefathers walked on, that tradition is the Thanksgiving Memphis show. The Allstars’ hometown holiday shows are always a festive occasion, marked by cover tunes and special guests. On November 25, they played to an audience full of rowdy fans, local music icons, and one rock and roll hall of famer.
Jason Isbell warmed up the crowd despite having their trailer of equipment stolen days before in Dallas. Using the Allstars’ gear (except for Jimbo Hart, the bassist…Allstars’ bassist Chris Chew is a lefty), Isbell and the 400 Unit were phenomenal.
Playing choice numbers from the 400 Unit and Drive-By Truckers catalogue, Isbell dazzled with his intoxicating guitar work and poetic lyrics.Â The set-opening “Go It Alone” set the bar for the night, and the band’s cover of the Meters’ “Hey Pocky Way,” sung by drummer and Memphis local Chad Gamble, was spot on.
Isbell’s set-ending “Try” was a blistering display of just how potent a band Isbell has put together. Mid-song they threw a few instrumental bars of Led Zeppelin’s “No Quarter” into the tune…ironic given that the legendary Zep frontman, Robert Plant, was in attendance at the show.
The Dickinson family has long been central to the rich Mid-South musical community. Memphis has watched the Dickinson brothers grow up,Â from their DDT days to being joined by Chew and morphing into the North Mississippi Allstars. Their music is steeped in the tones and accents of the region, and the Allstar sound is a bi-product of taking something as personal as the Mississippi hill country blues and making it their own.
It’s special to have the band in town, playing to a room packed with family and friends. But, expectations are always high for a Memphis Allstars show, so when Allstars drummer Cody Dickinson strutted out in a white suit, viking helmet, and goggles, it was clear that, at the very least, the band had dressed for the occasion.
As Cody laid down the intro to “Shimmy She Wobble,” the audience instantly began to move, and by the time the band got to “Mississippi Bollweevil,” the crowd was a unified mass of bodies, boogieing off every one of those extra Thanksgiving pounds. The Allstars segued from “Bollweevil” into “Preachin’ Blues,” bringing the gospel to Memphis, and followed it up with a cover of The Impressions’ “People Get Ready,” led by Chew. “Shake” turned into a crowd sing-along as the band brought the music down to a mere whisper, so the crowd could sing the chorus.
“Mean ‘Ol Wind Died Down” was the first song where Luther Dickinson got to stretch out and show why he is one of the best guitarists touring today, and why the North Mississippi Allstars are at their sharpest as the trio. For a band that has toured sporadically over the past few years, it sure doesn’t take long to round into game shape. As Luther slid his glass slide up and down the neck of his guitar, delivering note after singing note, and Cody and Chew laid down the steadiest of backbeats, the crowd stood at rapt attention, soaking in all of that sickly sweet slide guitar goodness.
The audience was taken to the garage on the subsequent “New Orleans Walking Dead,” a barrage of drum beats from Cody leading the way as Luther unleashed a furious solo while Chew kept a tight bass groove. The Allstars then took the audience to New Orleans, with Chew handling lead vocals on the Lee Dorsey nugget, “Everything I Do Gonh Be Funky (From Now On).” It was an amazing take on the tune, sped up to a near frenetic pace, showcasing the band’s ridiculous instrumental proficiency. It’s amazing how many notes can be shoved into two minutes without clogging up the sound.
Luther picked up his acoustic guitar for “Goin’ Home,” and Cody â€” the consummate musician â€” played his drums and guitar simultaneously…the guy never ceases to amaze. Local washboard legend Jimmy Crosthwait, an old band-mate of Dickinson patriarch Jim, took the stage for “Horseshoe” and “Moonshine.” It was a warm but bittersweet moment, but Jim was undoubtedly watching down from above with a huge grin.
The band stepped on the gas with “Po Black Maddie,” bringing the boogie back after the quieter portion of the show. Powered through the R.L. Burnside number, the trio seamlessly segued into a verse of Taj Mahal’s “Chevrolet,” played their way back into “Maddie” and out again into “Skinny Woman,” briefly stopped for a thunderous drum solo, and finally landed at “Psychedelic Sex Machine,” Cody’s vehicle for electric washboard bliss. It was a true testament to just how tight of a group the Allstars are. When they’re locked in and hitting the note, there are few acts who can do they do…at least not with an electric washboard…no one else is doing that.
The back half of the set was reserved for classics, and nothing was left out. The crowd roared when Luther asked if “y’all want to shake ’em on down a little bit,” and “Never In All My Days” was north Mississippi hill country boogie at its very finest. Crosthwait came back out for “KC Jones,” and the band put a slightly different spin on “Sugartown,” playing the tune with a slightly quicker backbeat and a marching bassline that brought a different dimension to the tune. With “Drinkin’ Muddy Water” â€” during which Cody played his drums with huge red whiffle ball bats and Luther set his guitar down to play a four-stringed cigar box guitarÂ â€” the set was over and the band left the stage.
When they returned for the encore, the Allstars had Jason Isbell in tow, and he and Dickinson traded vocals on a cover of Justin Townes Earle’s “Harlem River Blues.” Then, Alvin Youngblood Hart took the stage for a powerful take on his own “Big Mama’s Door” that nearly brought the house down. Luther and Alvin have a great musical connection, and it was showcased on the song. The band closed their encore with “Hear The Hills” and “Let It Roll,” left the stage, and returned yet again, closing the show with “All Night Long > Snake Drive,” and with that, the night was finally over.
The holidays mean a lot of different things to a lot of people, and for Memphis, it has come to mean the Allstars. The night truly was a celebration…a celebration of family â€” blood and adopted â€” and friends, old and new. But above all, it was about the musical legacy of the Dickinson family and the North Mississippi Allstars.