It’s hard to believe the North Mississippi Allstars have been kicking ass for two decades. Brothers Cody and Luther Dickinson have been involved in numerous other high-profile projects throughout the years, but they have always returned to their main love: bearing the torch for the groove-driven blues of their namesake. Earlier this year they released the aptly titled Prayer For Peace, and on October 14th they brought songs from it along with plenty of other ones to Portland’s Revolution Hall.
Canadian singer-songwriter Leeroy Stagger offered up an appetizer of Americana to get the night rolling. Playing a handful of songs including selections from his latest album Love Versus, Stagger skillfully balanced folk, alt-country, rock and power pop. His two band mates backed him on standup bass, acoustic guitar and banjo, letting his thoughtful lyrics come front and center with stripped down arrangements. Stagger’s music may have been far less electrified and bluesy than the headliner, but it’s safe to say he gained more than a few new fans.
With the sight of two drum sets onstage, it was clear the audience was in for a throwdown. Indeed, the Allstars wasted no time and exploded out of the gate with the greasy slide guitar-laden “Keep On Marchin’”, a swaggering blues rocker that set the tone for what would follow. “Prayer For Peace”, the title track off the new album, found Luther and Cody Dickinson harmonizing the way only brothers can before launching into an onslaught of drums and slide guitar. As with any Allstars show, some of the night’s most triumphant moments came when they busted out what are now Hill Country blues staples like “Po Black Maddie” with its euphoric slide jam in the middle and the swelling anthem “Goin’ Down South”, the latter of which segued into the monstrous blues basher “Shake”, complete with dueling drum solos. Cody embraced the band’s folk-jam roots with his take on the old staple “Deep Ellum”, holding down keys and drums simultaneously before jumping into the outro of “Shake”.
While the trio onstage had no problem conjuring a torrent of blues-driven rock and roll on their own, things got even more dynamic when Portland resident and Los Lobos member Steve Berlin showed up with his baritone saxophone. The musicians blasted straight off with a funkified “Circle in the Sky”, letting Luther take over the bass for some thick soulful grooving backed by two drummers. By the time the band hit the Hendrix-esque “Need to be Free”, Luther was back on the ax and making sweet love to his Marshall stacks as he coaxed a kaleidoscope of psychedelic sounds out of his instrument. This would be a main theme of the night, with the guitar player seeming to take more enjoyment in belting out lyrics and laying down huge riffs from the side of the stage than owning the spotlight, proving himself to be ever humble.
The pure happiness Luther and Cody Dickinson exude playing music after so many years is in and of itself a sight to behold. Onstage in Portland the brothers never stopped smiling, and their joy was contagious for a crowd that basked in every note. Their set proved that, even after playing the same songs for twenty years, each show is completely unique and they have just as much fun playing now as they always have. The Portland crowd shared the fun, dancing along until the final notes rang out.
All photos by Greg Homolka.