Review: Luther Dickinson & The Sons of Mudboy – “Onward and Upward”
Instrumentist for Aretha Franklin, Bob Dylan, Rolling Stones and Flamin Groovies. Producer of Green On Red, Replacements<, Screamin’ Jay Hawkins, Willy DeVille, Mudhoney and Tav Falco.
Leader of Mudboy & The Neutrons, a grungy swill of swamp-blues, country and rock and roll, little documented on record but surely listened for a long time by a lot of bands of the south of the United States.
This is only a little part of the Jim Dickinson’s resume. An Arkansas’s son (he was born in Little Rock in 1941) who was always identified with the music of that Memphis where he moved to when he was young and whose tradition crammed of country, gospel and r’n’r, he has viscerally loved and promoted without pausing for a whole life.
Dickinson passed away on the 15th of August 2009, in a bed of the Methodist Hospital of his beloved city; not even the third bypass has been enough to hold him among us. But as he was used to say, “I refuse to celebrate death. My life has been a miracle, well beyond anything I could’ve expected or deserved”.
Jim leaves two sons, Luther and Cody, better known as North Mississippi Allstars.
It is true that each one of us faces certain events in the way that he reputes the best and while Cody has decided for a comprehensible and respectable silence, Luther has put together some old friends, some friends from the local scene and a new face to orchestrate not just a homage in music but a real funeral prayer, drunk of blues, country and melancholy.
Luther Dickinson & The Sons Of Mudboy sound starkly, staggeringly, hurtfully. Aside from the personal catharsis evoked in the terse liner-notes, the tracks on Onward And Upward give off a feeling of spiritual frailty, configuring all the man’s horror and fear in front of the absence (or intrusiveness) of the Creator.
Together with the self-written Let it roll, a sad lament of slide composed by Dickinson for the passing of his mother, there is a string of gospels and spirituals faced with dryness and absence of embellishments. A string that follows the path of a soily, grayish and not gothic folk-blues, furious and threatening as, to say, in 16 Horsepower, but infinitely gloomy and resigned as the arm of an alcoholic falling exhausted from his chest, humble as someone who lives the poverty as an inescapable plague and laconic as the sight of who watches the existence without ever glimpsing even the mirage of a second chance.
Onward And Upward is not a record for everybody. Not everyone (and not at anytime) has the soul in the right mood to face what it sounds like a hillbilly transcription, blackened by the pitch, of the 1970s records of the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band or the acoustic counterpart, sibilant and skinned of “O Come Look At The Burnin” (2005) of Kevin Gordon or a record of Fat Possum where electricity is trade on a staggering unplugged structure in which every note resonates as a hiccup, a tear, a moan.
The desolate gospel of Leaning On The Everlasting Arms and Softly & Tenderly comes straight from the church services that Luther assisted during the Sundays of twenty-five years ago at the Baptist Church of Second Avenue; Back Back Train and Keep Your Lamp Trimmed come from a forgotten Mississippi Fred McDowell’s vinyl (“Amazing Grace: Mississippi Delta Spirituals By The Hunter’s Chapel Singers Of Chest of drawers, Miss.” (1966)); the country-gospel Glory Glory comes from the performances of Otha Turner, ancient expert of the military flute grown up in the Madison County and, finally, His Eye Is On The Sparrow and You’ve Got To Walk That Lonesome Highway come from the voice of the common people who have been singing these traditionals for one century to cement friendships or face daily difficulties.
The banjo and the mandolin of Jimbo Mathus of the Squirrel Nut Zippers, the dobro of Steve Selvidge, the tuba of Paul Taylor, the voice of Shannon McNally, the six strings of Sid Selvidge and the washboard of Jimmy Crosthwait (the last two already original members of Mud Boy & The Neutrons) complete the package. Two unidirectional microphones connected to a two-tracks recorder; no post-production.
It ‘s rare, nowadays, to come up with a record with so much history and so much music on its shoulders, both used exclusively to relieve a wild weeping. Listen to Onward And Upward and you won’t be able to do anything else but nodding to the words chosen by Jim Dickinson for his epitaph: “I’m not dead. I’m just gone”.
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