By: Andy Ross
Rock The Debate :: 09.26.08 :: The Grove :: Oxford, MS
Sprawling through the center of the Ole Miss campus in Oxford, Mississippi is The Grove. A gently rolling, grassy expanse dotted with towering oak trees, its grounds alternate between tranquility and crazy fall Saturdays when home football games turn it into the largest and most fashion conscious tailgate party in the South.
|Rock the Debate :: 09.26 by Ross|
This past Friday a much different - and undoubtedly more sober - type of gathering went down in The Grove in conjunction with the presidential debate hosted by Ole Miss. Rock the Debate, featuring headlining act North Mississippi Allstars, took place all afternoon and ended just minutes before Barack Obama and John McCain began sparring for votes that evening.
This was no typical music festival. In a tent a few hundred yards from the stage, Tom Brokaw and MSNBC's Chris Matthews held live interviews with such figures as Howard Dean and former U.S. Senator Trent Lott. Secret Service agents lurked around the perimeter while journalists who had decided to venture away from the barricaded press tent near the debate building mixed with the crowd. With coolers restricted from the grounds, I expected some stealthy flask passing to be going on, yet this was not the case. Catching a buzz was not on the agenda for most in this crowd.
After an opening performance by the Ole Miss Gospel Choir, the
Oxford-based outfit Kudzu Kings took the stage. With longtime guitarist George McConnell (ex-Widespread Panic member) now absent from the lineup and their shows limited to rare occasions, the Kudzu Kings are in a much different place than the late '90s when they enjoyed a period of notable popularity. They most definitely are still a band that knows how to have a good time, however, and one whose rootsy, country-tinged rock & roll is a prime example of what can be spawned out of the diverse influences of Mississippi's magical Hill Country.
|Kudzu Kings :: Rock the Debate :: 09.26 by Ross|
As they closed out the short set with "Down in Mississippi," I felt a great sense of pride for this state wash over me, and acknowledged the degree to which many here were viewing this day as a chance to finally erase some of the negative stereotypes which have persisted for so long. After all, there is no denying the historical dynamics involved with the debate occurring at Ole Miss. The mass riot that ensued here in 1962 because a black man tried to enroll was one of the ugliest affairs of that entire crazy decade. Fast-forward to 2008, and the same institution is hosting the first debate of the first presidential election in history where a black man could very likely win the White House.
Following the Kudzu Kings was Saving Abel, whose power ballads and laughable lyrics on songs such as "New Tattoo" were somewhat painful to endure. A set from Mayhem String Band was next and minus the technical sound issues, was a good showing. A young Mississippi band, Mayhem has been steadily building a fan base in recent years with their modern and aggressive twists on bluegrass that often leave behind whisky-soaked dance floors. They have a heavy tour through the Southeast planned this fall and their debut album, Rapscallions and Ne'erdowells, is now under their belt. Mayhem String Band is an act we could be hearing a lot more from.
|Rock the Debate :: 09.26 by Ross|
Next were poetry readings and a few uninspiring speeches from local politicians before Tupelo native Paul Thorn's show. Combining a roughneck style of country-blues with storytelling lyrics about his days as a boxer and the girlfriend who cheated on him 150 times, Thorn added some much needed gritty soul to the day.
After Thorn's set I fell away from the stage for a few hours to drift around. Although I had been speculating all week on the possible craziness that could unfold, the scene turned out to be relatively tame. The main demonstration area was cordoned off completely out of sight and the signs being carried through The Grove itself were pretty standard. There was one sign, "9/11 Was an Inside Job," that was garnering some disgusted glances, and a cowboy clad baby boomer with a poster proclaiming, "Dump Katie Couric Now," which was a big hit with the McCain fans.
With only an hour until debate time and the sun dropping fast, the
North Mississippi Allstars finally took the stage. Catching NMA at various shows over the past seven years or so, it is clear this is a band whose sound has grown tighter than ever. Each member seems able to read one another's moods and progressions with precision. Even as guitarist Luther Dickinson tears into one of his flat-out nasty improvisations, his brother Cody Dickenson on drums and bassist Chris Chew fall into stride effortlessly.
|Luther Dickinson - NMA :: Rock the Debate by Colin McAuliffe|
I have also rarely, if ever, seen a crowd at a NMA show where at least some in attendance are not shaking down hard in the front row. This night was no different as they opened with the always-popular "Going Down South." With the obvious time constraint, there was only so far each song could be taken, but some foot stomping moments still emerged within a hard thumping "Snake Drive" and an "All Night Long" that turned pretty funky. All the members seemed at ease during the performance and genuinely pleased to be back in such familiar territory as The Grove. Towards the end of the evening, Luther offered the only politically natured comment of the night. "Power to the people, right," he said as he picked up his guitar and launched back into the music.
As good as NMA have become over the years, what makes the group that much more exciting for me is their eagerness to push new boundaries with various side projects and collaborations. Hill Country Revue, for example, whose members include Chew, Cody and occasionally Luther, is modern Mississippi blues on steroids, while Luther's work with The Black Crowes this year is living proof that pure, American rock 'n' roll is alive and well.
As the hour of the debate drew closer and just before they closed the show, Chew paused for a moment between songs and smiled as he looked out into the crowd. "It is so good to be in Oxford," he said with a smile. "History, history, history."
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