North Mississippi Allstars ramp up the rock on 51 Phantom

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ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED IN THE GEORGIA STRAIGHT, OCT. 18, 2001

By Steve Newton

For last year’s debut CD, Shake Hands With Shorty, the North Mississippi Allstars thoroughly plumbed the catalogues of Mississippi hill-country blues icons Fred McDowell, R.L. Burnside, and Jr. Kimbrough. On their new disc, 51 Phantom, the band took a different tack, including only two songs they didn’t write themselves. But guitarist-vocalist Luther Dickinson—who’s joined in the trio by his younger brother Cody on drums and vocals, and bassist Chris Chew—doesn’t make a big deal about the group’s recent embrace of its own material.

“It’s all good,” drawls the 28-year-old picker from a gig in Valdosta, Georgia. “We started out playin’ hill-country music, and that’s what we wanted to do on the first record, but we always knew for the second one we’d just do originals. If you take the [new] songs down to a simple acoustic guitar, they’re still pretty bluesy, but we just kinda filled ’em out and made ’em crazy-sounding, you know what I mean?”

While the Grammy-nominated Shake Hands With Shorty revelled in the rootsy, down-home sound of Mississippi, 51 Phantom takes a heavier blues-rock approach, as if the guys spent the last year immersed in early ZZ Top. The first disc was produced by the Dickinson brothers themselves, but for the follow-up they looked to their father, Jim—noted for his work with the likes of the Replacements, Big Star, and Ry Cooder—to man the console.

“Cody and I produced the first record ’cause we knew exactly what we wanted to do,” relates Dickinson, “and we just wanted to capture what we did live over the years. But we grew up workin’ [in the studio] with our dad, so we wanted to do the second one with him. He got a lot of real spontaneous performances out of us, you know, so a lot of the record is first take, a lot of it’s live.”

The North Mississippi Allstars are set to open for Oysterhead—improv-minded alumni of the Police, Phish, and Primus—at the Orpheum on Tuesday (October 23), but when Dickinson calls, his band is in the midst of a headlining tour of Deep South bars. From the hootin’ and hollerin’ heard on his end, you’d guess they’re having a riot; Dickinson explains that the backstage racket is the result of his kid brother messing about with Duwayne Burnside, a rowdy member of the northern Mississippi clan headed by R.L. Burnside. The NMA covered no fewer than four Burnside compositions on their debut, some of which will no doubt make an appearance at the Orpheum. Hopefully, so will the newfangled “electric washboard” that Cody puts to the test on two new tunes. “A buddy of his in Atlanta invented it,” notes Dickinson with a laugh, “and Cody is pioneering the art form.”

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