Hill Country Blues, Two Points Of View

North Mississippi Allstars, Spencer Dickinson @ 9:30 Club, Nov. 11, 2006

A bill of Jon Spencer and the North Mississippi Allstars makes perfect sense, and it was long overdue. Both pay homage to Mississippi hill country blues, but in drastically different styles -- Jon mimicking the format of R.L. Burnside's band but playing punk and the Allstars using Burnside's songs for half of their own catalog but stretching them out into noodledancin' jams.

Luther Dickinson was billed as the first act, but it was basically Allstars sans drums. Luther sang and played guitar, mostly acoustic, with brother Cody accompanying on acoustic guitar. It was familiar-feeling folkie roots rock -- good times, good vibes, good, sunny fun. It was a short set, with bassist Chris Chew accompanied the brothers on their last song, an instrumental, which began such that I thought it was "Ramblin' Man" and later reminded me of "Sweet Melissa." And then I knew the ol' drawback for me about the Allstars would play a role that evening -- the fact that they sound more like The Allman Brothers than the Jon Spencer Blues Explosion protégés that I originally took them for.

Years ago I saw the Allstars play a sloppy, foot-stomping opening set for the Blues Explosion and fell in love with 'em. Luther sat in a chair strumming wildly as he sang, leg moving like a jackhammer. The songs immediately reminded me of the Blues Explosion, only more contained, and they rolled. That's what the brothers bring to Spencer Dickinson. It's much more Jon's band than theirs, but they keep it consistent and moving. In addition to Luther on guitar and Cody on drums, Spencer was backed by Chew on bass, making this band the Spencer Allstars. Spencer's a terrific stage presence, mixing Elvis' swing with Jagger's swagger and punctuating his vocals with hearty "oohs," "ahs," and "yeahs!" Most of the set was wild, punky blues, drowning in reverb right from the opener, "Love Without A Smile." They did have mellow moments -- a Creedence at midnight vibe runs through "Body," which includes the best sing-along on Spencer Dickinson's album with the whiny "Where did you go, my only friend?" And they played creepy -- "Book Of Sorrow" sounds like a sappy, brokenhearted song by name but is actually dripping in voodoo. I didn't expect to hear "Primitive," a song I figured they wouldn't be able to pull off live. It's one of their best, though, and Spencer held some contraption with which he provided the distortion I couldn't visualize on a stage.

Most people seemed to be watching with either curiosity or boredom as they waited for the Allstars, like they've ignored the Dickinson's thrash-funk phase in DDT 10 years ago. But Spencer Dickinson's set was a welcome return to that energy and heaviness, which was part of the Allstars early sound but is long gone these days.

When the Allstars came back to the stage without Spencer, they needed a couple songs to shake off the grime, and those songs were great rock 'n' roll -- the sound I always hope for from the band. Concise and gritty. But then the long, Allman-style guitar solos came back into play. Overall, I enjoyed the set enough, and every song started off great, but inevitably, Luther would take his guitar on a tangent. The man can really play, but he doesn't have to be such a showoff about it. A friend of mine, a jam fan, once described my distaste for the genre, saying, "He likes songs that end when they're supposed to." And while that's not entirely accurate -- I can listen to Built To Spill stretch their songs for 20 minutes without wandering -- it was a pretty good description of how I felt for much of the Allstars set. They left plenty of time for me to wait at the bar for drinks and visit the restroom, which I usually hold off doing until a set is over. The best and the worst of the Allstars were both represented in Burnside's "Po Black Maddie." It started off raucous and ramblin', but the solos kicked in -- on guitar and drums -- and the song dragged on and on. After 10 or 15 minutes, they went back to the chorus one more time, and I had honestly forgotten they were still playing "Po Black Maddie." But for the set closer, a cover of Junior Kimbrough's "All Night Long," they managed to meld the jams of the majority of the set with the grit of the first two songs, finally bringing me to move with the hyper crowd.

I was a bit disappointed that so many of the cover songs from their first album -- including many Burnside songs -- made this set list. I expect covers from them, but I want to hear new territory. I want to be turned onto some Mississippi blues I don't already know. Spencer rejoined them for a four-song encore that kept the feeling of "All Night Long." Four blues covers, the Staples Singers' "Freedom Highway" the best of the bunch.

So while the North Mississippi Allstars did not return to the edgier musical territory of their youth, it was great to see them share the stage with Spencer again. And since the Blues Explosion tours so infrequently these days, it was simply brilliant to see Spencer on stage at all.

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