“This is grown folks music,” is the short, but completely accurate description that bassist Chris Chew uses to describe the North Mississippi Allstars’ latest album. And Keys to the Kingdom is just that; the band’s most musically mature, powerful statement yet. Gone is the back-roads juke-joint-meets-thrash of previous albums, but this doesn’t mean the Allstars play with any less energy. Instead, that energy has been refocused into a barreling, swampy roll of gritty, down-home blues.
Keys to the Kingdom can easily be read as Cody and Luther Dickinson’s musical memorial to their father, legendary Memphis producer Jim Dickinson, who passed away in 2009. Heeding their father’s advice that the two of them are better together than they will ever be apart, the boys decamped to the family studio and got to work on the North Mississippi All-Stars’ first album since 2008’s Hernando. The result is a perfect homage to their Dad, and all the music he made, produced, and influenced.
While the spirit of the elder Dickinson’s death clearly looms large on the album, it never treads into weepy eulogy, but instead again follows his advice to “refuse to celebrate death.” Keys to the Kingdom is a celebration of the legendary producer’s life. To aid in this celebration, the Dickinson’s recruited an all-star roster of friends, including Ry Cooder, Spooner Oldham, and Alvin Youngblood Hart, among others who help pay their respects. The most glorious of these guests is Mavis Staples and her soul-soothing-Sunday-revival turn on “The Meeting” with the uplifting gospel-tinged: Pray tell my brother,Where you heading? Where you heading this morning? I tell you my brother is heading up to the meeting, on the other side. Stand, it’s the beginning, not the end. Not a question of whether or not, but a question of when I’m going to the meeting!”
Keys to the Kingdom is not only a fitting homage to their legendary father, but it is also the band’s most mature work yet, as Luther Dickinson says about the new album, “We recorded our best country, blues and Mississippi rock ‘n roll record yet – as if our lives depended on it.”
Keys to the Kingdom is out now on Songs of the South Records.