Words by Shain Shapiro
North Mississippi Allstars :: 11.09.05 :: Lee's Palace :: Toronto, ON
On their new LP Electric Blue Watermelon, the North Mississippi Allstars' skills in transforming several musical styles embedded in American Southern culture shined, crafting an impressively cohesive and fitting tribute to the greats. Heavily influenced by R.L. Burnside, among many others, Electric Blue Watermelon meshed together delta, classic, and down-home blues, along with southern rock, northern soul, and pop into a crunchy spread thick enough to break burnt toast. A welcome departure from the heavily-produced Polaris, Electric Blue Watermelon is raw, delivering a gritty interpretation into the basic emotions entangling southern life: love, hate, racism, family, alcoholism, pride, etc... - essentially all the variables that make southern music so powerful. Therein, at their show in Toronto, I expected an abrasive dose of powerful delta blues, melancholic, abrasive lyrics, and fiery energy - all the elements that electrified the watermelon.
North Mississippi Allstars
What I got was a mixed bag at best, showcasing the best and the worst of the North Mississippi Allstars in one stretched-out, two-hour set. While most of the album's choice cuts were played, including the soft-spoken "Mean Old Wind Died Down," the entrancingly potent "Teasin' Brown," and the gloriously melodic "Hurry up Sunshine," as well as a few choice cuts off their debut Shake Hands with Shorty, an important element utilized on Electric Blue Watermelon disappeared: the element of surprise, or simple variety. Every progression, chord change, and improvised interlude molded together to create one long song, or a bevy of melodies and rhythms that sounded exactly the same. Regardless of the song, brothers Luther and Cody Dickinson and bassist Chris Chew approached them with the same aesthetic in mind, which grew tiring about an hour into the set.
Luther Dickinson by Tony Stack
Still, these three musicians can play. Guitarist Luther Dickinson opened the show strumming a stringed cigar box in place of a guitar and expanded on his basic chord progression by soloing with the one-stringed, primitive instrument. In addition, drummer Cody Dickinson stepped outside the kit for a fantastic electric washboard solo halfway through the set, an ingenious instrument that to this day, I have never seen another band utilize. The ten-minute solo flirted with trance, drum and bass, and free jazz and refreshingly abated the established southern-blues ethos, showcasing another aspect of the trio that exemplifies the exclusivity towards styles and influences that entwines Electric Blue Watermelon. After the fantastic washboard work, the trio contently returned to proving the point that had been hammered down midway through the second song, trapped in a spin cycle that neither washed, nor dried. I would have rather enjoyed another washboard solo.
Cody & Luther Dickinson by Tony Stack
Regardless of how good a certain act is, if nothing new or inventive transpires throughout a live show, it grows tiring. Two songs into the set, it was obvious that these three can play, but it did not matter. Sure, Luther Dickinson can shred with the best of the bunch, and Chris Chew and Cody Dickinson are easily one of the best rhythm sections south of the Mason-Dixon Line, but without the spice of variety, the gumbo becomes bland. The staunch reliance on southern blues became a hindrance, and the latter influences that define their recent studio work simply disappeared. It is not that the music was not performed well, expelled ferociously, or delivered entertainingly, because it most definitely was, but too much of a good thing can be suffocating.
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