North Mississippi Allstars Debut For New West Records With ‘Up And Rolling’ (ALBUM REVIEW)

The North Mississippi Allstars’ Up And Rolling is a decidedly tighter and more focused piece of work than their last two albums. World Boogie Is Coming and Prayer for Peace found siblings Luther and Cody Dickinson collaborating much more informally than not with a broad aggregation of musicians and singers and while the level of spontaneity remains high on this, their label debut for New West Records, the presence of a stable core lineup is as significant as the presence of Mavis Staples on “What You Gonna Do?.” 

In the enclosed booklet, Luther recounts the source of inspiration for this record, that is, photos of he and his brother along with like-minded Mississippi Hill Country folk, many of which adorn this mini-LP CD packaging. Taken just before the guitarist/vocalist/songwriter formed NMAS with his multi-instrumentalist brother roughly twenty years ago, it is hardly surprising that two tunes here speak directly to those past times, the titlesong and “Drunk Outdoors.” And while both tracks are equally important in autobiographical terms, it’s more significant the musicians take some time to stretch out on the former.

That jam, however, isn’t so extensive as the one on “Mean Old World.” An inventive, earthy improvisation unfolds with increasingly greater intensity for six and half minutes, featuring Jason Isbell and Duane Betts on a T-Bone Walker/Little Walter tune culled from the outtakes of Derek and the Dominos’ Layla and Other Assorted Love Songs (in that form an acoustic duet between Eric Clapton and Duane Allman). No doubt it might well have gone on much longer in the Zebra Ranch Studios where engineer Kevin Houston recorded the bulk of these sessions, but the studio expertise the Dickinson Brothers learned from their late father Jim (who worked with the disparate likes of the Rolling Stones and the Replacements) stands them in good stead  as they co-produce with sufficient restraint to preserve the flow of these twelve tracks.

The abbreviated “Out on the Road,” features long-time mentor R.L. Burnside (who also appears on “Take My Hand, Precious Lord”), while Roosevelt Collier contributes steel guitar to “Bump That Mother” and Rev. Charles Hodges further seasons the mix with his earthy Hammond B3 sounds on “What You Gonna Do?” and “Living Free.”  Such varied displays of musicianship invariably serve the respective songs on which they appear, the three-to-four minutes renditions supplying further evidence of Luther and Cody’s judicious, purposeful approach to a project in which the whole is much greater than the sum of its lively parts. 

A mere thirty-eight seconds of “Otha’s Bye Bye Baby” stands simultaneously as homage to Turner and an understated punctuation mark to an emphatic statement of roots. Yet even as the pair and their partners eschew a wide-open approach in favor of slightly shorter cuts such as “Peaches,” there’s some room for Luther to flashes his distinctive guitar prowess, while Cody forges a solid bond with bassist Carl Dufrene (formerly of Anders Osborne’s band) in a rhythm section as nimble as it is muscular. 

Reaffirming the value Sharde Thomas brought to her membership with the elder Dickinson in The Wandering and Sisters of the Strawberry Moon, the granddaughter of the aforementioned Hill Country blues icon offers her pliant voice and the airy timber of fife on “Call that Gone,” thereby adding a vivacity to the proceedings that freshens an NMAS formula established back on 2000’s Grammy Award-nominated Shake Hands With Shorty. 

As such, Up And Rolling represent at least something of a return to the solidarity that earmarked the group’s best studio efforts records as a trio (with bassist/vocalist Chris Chew). And while it’s no Hernando or Electric Blue Watermelon, it posits the distinct possibility such a stellar piece of work may very well be in the offing and in the not too distant future.

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