North Mississippi Allstars : Higher Ground, South Burlington, VT -1/30/08

Last Wednesday night The North Mississippi Allstars played like they had nothing to prove but a whole lot to say. In fact, this non-stop two-hour set suggested the trio is entering the prime of their collective career right now in the wake of their January studio release of Hernando.

NMA picked up where opener (and late set guest) Alvin Youngblood Hart left off. Deceptively understated, and with no concession to theatrics except Cody Dickinson’s encore turn on the electric washboard, the band elevated itself and that atmosphere in the Vermont club to increasing levels of intensity through the course of their extended set. The dynamics of the music revolved around the mammoth riffs anchored by the bass of Chris Chew, he of a similarly massive physique.

Only a few segues occurred, including the fitting regular set conclusion “All Night Long” into “Turn On Your Lovelight. ” Yet whenever The Allstars engaged in an extended improvisation, the atmosphere of Higher Ground altered markedly. Luther Dickinson’s skill with the guitar (sans double stacks of Marshall amps these days) is growing by leaps and bounds, to the point that, teases of “Mountain Jam” and “Jessica” aside, he is approaching that rarified air inhabited by Derek Trucks, playing (with and without slide) free of cliché, containing equal amounts of intricacy, ingenuity and power.

Not to mention patience. The bespectacled hirsute Dickinson may be the dirtiest-sounding guitarist on the planet right now, so the NMA cover of The Rolling Stones’ salacious “Stray Cat Blues” is right in their wheelhouse. But when stepping back to take his time constructing his solo here, Luther displayed the maturity of a musician who reflects upon his music both on and off the stage. No doubt that’s why the guitarist/vocalist—in a speaking voice clearer than his singing tenor sometimes was–thanked the capacity crowd so graciously for their enthusiasm in greeting NMA’s return to the site of their Keep On Marchin’ DVD recorded in 2005.

A clutch of cuts from Hernando (“I Would Love to be a Hippy,” “Eaglebird” ”Blowout,” and “Soldier”) meshed seamlessly with songs from various points of the AllStars’ discography (“51 Phantom,” “Mean Old Wind,” “Mississippi Boll Weevil”), the cumulative effect of which roused everyone, on and off the ballroom stage. It couldn’t have been more appropriate to hear “Sittin’ On Top of the World” as the last tune of the night, for this Howlin’ Wolf’s number no doubt reflected the state of mind of everyone who had just participated in a celebration of the blues.

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