The Art Of The Sit-In | Luther Dickinson
Welcome back to another edition of The Art of the Sit-In. Last time, we chatted up Roosevelt Collier and for a moment, we’ll keep the conversation going in the land of guitar.
Our scene doesn’t lack for world-class guitarists, but even when you really start to shorten the the list of elite axemen, there’s still no avoiding Luther Dickinson. Son of Jim, brother of drummer/instrumentalist Cody and lifelong pal to families named Burnside, Kimbrough and Turner, Luther bleeds blues and countless other styles – a stylistic link between the ancient Hill Country pickers, Duane Allman, Hendrix and plenty of others.
Also, dude gets around, and never more so than in recent years. In addition to maintaining the core of the North Mississippi Allstars – now a 17-year-old band, astonishingly – he toured and recorded with the Black Crowes, cut a range of solo-project albums (including last year’s mesmerizing acoustic disc Hambone Meditations and albums with the South Memphis String Band and The Wandering), and found time to turn up everywhere.
This fall, in addition to the release of World Boogie Is Coming, NMAS’ ace return to reform, he’s playing an East Coast swing as a Phil Lesh friend alongside Lesh, Grahame Lesh, Jason Crosby, Tony Leone and good buddy Anders Osborne. It’s one of the most intriguing PLF lineups in ages and one that Phil was apparently impressed enough with (following a run of shows at Terrapin Crossroads in the spring) to develop beyond a one-off.
Luther’s a busy guy but agreed to answer a few questions en route to Europe for a NMAS tour. He didn’t touch everything – no discussion of his time with the Crowes – but we’re frankly impressed he can keep it all straight.
JAMBASE: I listened to a bootleg the other day of you guys from 2000 in Boston, one with Al Kooper sitting in on organ. It was such a raw, immediate sound and 13 years later, a lot’s changed for North Mississippi Allstars but that fundamental rawness is still there. Do you think you guys are still the same band?
LUTHER DICKINSON: We have gone through different stages but right now we are closer to the original concept of what the band should be than ever. Lightnin Malcolm is a great influence. His knowledge of hill country blues is invaluable, as is his stylistic principles and aesthetic. He keeps it raw.
JB: You’ve always been accommodating of sit-ins and had to get pretty good at working players into your fabric, especially folks who have toured with your band. I remember you telling me once that that goes with the territory in the musical environment you grew up in –can you expand on that?
LD: As a trio we have always utilized the other touring musicians to expand the presentation. We try to put together package tours with musicians we love. I am very protective of the opening slot. I despise having our audience tortured before we even have a chance to say hello.
We spent years opening up for Medeski Martin & Wood, Galactic and Gov’t Mule and they always sat in with us and invited us as well. I love sitting in and playing in new musical environments. “When in doubt, lay out!”
JB: Any particularly great sit-ins –either you guys welcoming someone in with Allstars or you sitting in with someone else –from the past year? Can you share a story?
LD: Playing with the Allman Brothers is always a dream come true and I appreciate every chance to do so. My favorite was one night at Wanee, my wife and I were literally leaned up against the back fence deep into a mushroom zone and half undressed when Warren introduced me as sitting in!
We rushed up to the stage and [guitar tech Brian] Farmer strapped a Gibson on me and I made the outro solo. Musically, it was my favorite ABB sit in because I was in the zone and felt fluent in the Brothers’ vernacular. The best part was after when Jaimoe called me over and said, “What you doing up here with grass on your back and in your hair? You out there gettin some?!” Yes sir, I was!
JB: Kind of a rhetorical question, but is there anyone in particular you’ve never played with that you’d like to?
LD: Oh yes! Jack White. Bob Dylan. Keith Richards. Questlove. Eric Clapton. [That’s] just to name a few and this would all be preferred to be in the studio. And playing with Mavis Staples is a highlight. She is a queen and an American treasure.
JB: How would you compare World Boogie is Coming to previous North Mississippi Allstars albums? Where does this one “sit” in your evolution?
LD: We are in control of our powers. We used to let songwriting or self indulgence lead us stylistically astray but we now know what our job is. Bring the world boogie!
JB: Talk about Lightnin’ Malcolm and what he’s brought to the band, especially on tour. You guys get going plenty well as a duo but why has it been important to bring on a bass again?
LD: We had been jamming and writing songs late night at my house during the time we had to replace Chew and before we knew it we were rehearsing. It was very natural. We enjoy playing as a duo but try to keep both lineups viable. By the way, Chris is doing well and seems healthy and happy!
JB: You have a bunch of dates with a very interesting incarnation of Phil Lesh & Friends coming up. How did you meet Phil?
LD: Phil hired me to come play a run at Terrapin Crossroads and we hit it off! I am not shy on the bandstand when I feel musical freedom and he responds to that. Phil is a true master. He has built a home base and brings in younger musicians and teaches them his craft, his way of working and his traditions. It is amazing to behold. [The shows we played in the spring] were very exciting.
Also, JB: Do you have much experience with Dead music? Can we assume you were a fan already?
LD: Of course, I grew up with the music but I had never learned it. Finally learning the repertoire has been such a thrill. Robert Hunter’s use of American language and history is truly unique. He is up there with Mark Twain and Bob Dylan. I also admire Jerry’s guitar hooks –genius rock ‘n’ roll guitar playing. It’s great how structured the Dead’s music is. It sounds so free but it is intensely cerebral.
JB: You seem to have a pretty unique chemistry with Anders Osborne that I imagine will be a big focus of this Phil lineup. Talk about that a little bit.
LD: Anders and I hit it off immediately. He is one of my favorite rock ‘n’ roll guitar players and a great singer. We see eye to eye and complement each other.
JB: How much time are you spending on your solo music? You had a bunch of terrific releases in 2012 and I was particularly taken with Hambone Meditations. What else is coming up?
LD: I have been concentrating on North Mississippi Allstars but I do have some tricks up my sleeve for the future. I wrote a score to a silent film that I plan to share with everyone next year. That was so satisfying and inspiring.
JB: Do you expect more music and shows with Butch Trucks and Oteil Burbridge in the future? That seemed like an interesting project and you’ve obviously known those guys for ages.
LD: What a dream come true! We plan to do another Roots Rock Revival Camp next year.
JB: And as I hit all the bases, do you think you and Cody will be performing with The Word again any time soon?
LD: I sure hope so! We need The Word!
THE DOSSIER: 5 Hot Luther Sit-Ins From the Past Year and 1 From the Vault
It’s hard to go wrong with Luther, but these shows jump out as strong examples from the past year of Luther and NMAS as host or Luther as guest musician.
NMAS and Friends at Minglewood Hall, Memphis, TN, 11/23/2012: Everything you love about the NMAS and more: a show on the more-or-less home court of Memphis, a runaway train feeling as the jams percolate and build, and likeminded guests (Burnsides! Alvin Youngblood Hart!) weaving in and out as everybody switches instruments.
Luther at Bowlive, Brooklyn, NY, 3/7/2013: This one has a little bit of everything from Bowlive: jazz, funk, blues, blazing rock ‘n’ roll, John Popper, Saunders Sermons, Hendrix and Beatles tunes, and Luther and Cody wailing away for most of set two.
Luther with Phil Lesh & Friends at Terrapin Crossroads, 4/12/2013: The second of three sizzling, unusual shows that anticipated the fall PLF tour lineup has a 2-hour, 10-minute second set that includes Neil Young’s “Down by the River” and the Allstars’ “Mean Ol Wind Died Down.”
Luther with Umphrey’s McGee at Summer Camp, Chillicothe, IL, 5/26/2013: A typically sparkling Umphrey’s set at Summer Camp gets that much gnarlier with the additions of Luther and the one and only Taj Mahal midway through the set.
From the Vault:
NMAS with Al Kooper, Somerville, MA, 4/16/2000: A short show as opener for Galactic, but a hot one from the “old days” of NMAS, which at this point included Garry Burnside on second guitar. Bonus: Rock legend Al Kooper sits in throughout the gig on Hammond B3 organ.