When I caught Luther Dickinson’s show last month in Philadelphia, it was in the smaller of the two halls at World Cafe Live. There were maybe 100 or so patrons there, and the tickets were reasonably priced under $20. He and his “Cooperators” couldn’t have walked away with more than $2,000 from the evening. After his years as frontman for North Mississippi Allstars and lead guitarist for the Black Crowes, it would be understandable if Dickinson jacked up his asking price and played only larger halls ala Joe Bonamassa.
But there would be a tradeoff – Dickinson would have to sacrifice the intimacy of the event and compromise over his material. He plays large venues with NMA and other outfits – when he’s doing his solo stuff, it’s personal. For his solo work, he travels with old friends. On his Philly stop there were Amy Lavere, a Memphis collaborator who plays upright bass, and Austin-based guitarist Will Sexton, along with Sharde Thomas, who has carried on the tradition of Mississippi fife and drum blues and collaborated with Dickinson since she was a teenager. There was a real chemistry and informality with this core group of friends – and a few friends from the audience – and the music selections were a mix of Dickinson originals and standards that made for a tasty evening.
We’ve talked about Dickinson’s versatility before. Co-founder with brother Cody of North Mississippi Allstars, he laid down his first guitar licks at age 14 on the the Replacements’ Pleased to Meet Me (produced by father Jim) in 1987. Along with starting NMA, in the late 1990s, Dickinson played Alan Lomax for Sharde Thomas’ grandfather Otha Turner, producing two albums of the 90-something’s unique fife and drum blues. Since then, his musical exploration has led him to his years with the Black Crowes, and, along with brother Cody, to join forces with John Medeski and Robert Randolph to record as The Word in 2001, and to work and tour with John Hiatt. In 2009 Luther got together with a few friends to record Onward and Upward in honor of his recently deceased father under the name of Luther Dickinson and the Sons of Mudboy, and in 2010, along with bluesman Alvin Youngblood Hart and Squirrel Nut Zipper Jimbo Mathus, he formed the South Memphis String Band to pursue a more organic jug-band blues sound. As if that wasn’t enough, in 2012 he recorded an inspired album of solo acoustic guitar, Hambone’s Meditations. That year, he also worked on a collaboration with fellow guitar slingers David Hidalgo of Los Lobos and Mato Nanji of Indigenous, 3 Skulls and the Truth. Last year, he released his second solo album, Rock ‘N Roll Blues. Last year he went on a tour with JJ Grey, Marc Broussard and Anders Osborne – the Southern Soul Assembly – in which all played one another’s songs and swapped stories.
His newest release, Blues & Ballads, is a reflection of his dedication to Americana music, and rolls out almost like an autobiography. Some of the songs are retreads from NMA albums, such as “Hurry Up Sunrise,” “Bang Bang Lulu,” “Moonshine” and “Mean Old Wind Died Down” – all of which appeared on NMA’s Electric Blue Watermelon in 2005, and “How I Wish My Train Would Come,” “Ain’t No Grave,” “Let it Roll,” and “Ol’ Cannonball” off Keys to the Kingdom. But the songs are presented on Blues & Ballads in spare, acoustic intimacy. There are also some real surprises, such as his haunting, atmospheric “Storm,” which is unlike anything NMA or Dickinson fans will expect. As Luther describes the album: “This art is not for the masses. It is meant to wither and fade and then rise from the ashes again and again, evolving and mutating.” It’s also a great album with a great supporting cast, including old friends Grey, Mavis Staples, Thomas, Lavere, Hart, Mathus, Jason Isbell, Sexton, Dominic Davis, Brad Hodge, Charles Hodges, Sharisse and Shontelle Norman, and Paul Taylor. Americana enthusiasts will not be disappointed.
About the author: Bill Wilcox is a roots music enthusiast recently relocated from the Washington, DC area to Philadelphia, PA and back again.