Review: North Mississippi Allstars- Keys to the Kingdom
Bands like the North Mississippi Allstars don’t come around every day. They’re the type of band who wants no part of the generally accepted rock star mythology of wild parties, harrowing addiction, and horny groupies and instead choose to follow a deeper and more righteous path focused on roots, hard work, and what Gram Parsons referred to as “cosmic American music.” This is the tradition that Greil Marcus has spent an entire career describing and which very few artists- such as CCR, The Band, the Flying Burrito Brothers, the Grateful Dead, the Allman Brothers, and Johnny Cash- actually become a part of. To become a part of it, you need to put away any ideas about your band being the “next big thing” and creating something entirely modern and instead focus on building something new and exciting on top of the ancient foundations of American roots music. It is that commitment which makes the North Mississippi Allstars, as of 2011, the greatest rock band on the planet.
Led by brothers Luther and Cody Dickinson, along with bassist Chris Chew, the Allstars have been releasing great records since 2000, most notably their 2004 live effort Hill Country Revue which was recorded live at Bonnaroo and featured appearances by such luminaries as R.L. Burnside and the Rising Star Fife and Drum Band and later spawned a namesake side project from brother Cody. Then in 2009, the band lost their father and musical mentor, the legendary producer and pianist Jim Dickinson. The Dickinson brothers both reacted to the death with albums of their own. Cody and Hill Country Revue recorded Zebra Ranch, a brilliant old school rock album named after his father’s studio and Luther focused on the South Memphis String Band, an old-time music ensemble which also featured Jimbo Mathus and Alvin Youngblood Hart. But perhaps the most important release from the period was Luther’s solo album Onward & Upward, a heart-wrenching acoustic record composed mostly of traditional gospel tunes recorded three days after his father’s death with accompaniment by various friends and family members.
It’s hard not to listen to those three albums and not feel as if Jim Dickinson’s spirit is hiding somewhere in the very grooves of the record and on Keys to the Kingdom, the band’s latest album which will be released Tuesday, this feeling is magnified. Throughout the album’s 12 tracks, the band’s focus is mostly tilted upward. Take for instance the fourth track, “How I Wish My Train would Come,” a Tom Petty-esque heartland rocker where Luther asks the higher power to “please deliver me, I’m ready to leave,” and states with great urgency that he’s “gotta get the hell away from here” before borrowing a famous line from Blind Willie Johnson.
The next song, an epic and slide-heavy Southern rock ballad called “Hear the Hills,” simply reiterates these points with references to the song “Angel Band” intermixed with sobering visions of “the shadow of the death” and “the road paved with gold.” While certainly plaintive at times, the song is, like the album, ultimately a hopeful celebration of their father’s life and legacy.
Similarly, Luther lifts the tune “Let It Roll” from his aforementioned solo album and turns what was an acoustic track fueled by nothing but pure heart and the mixed emotions we all feel when somebody close to us passes on into a serene full-band electric number without losing any of the previous version’s passion.
Yet it’s not all somber songs of death and mourning. There is also a laid-back acoustic blues cover of Dylan’s “Stuck Inside of Mobile with the Memphis Blues Again” and several great Southern rock numbers including “This a’ Way,” “Ol’ Cannonball,” and the Skynyrdian “Ain’t None o’ Mine.” Not to mention the carefree “Jumpercable Blues” or the fun, if chilling, “New Orleans Walkin’ Dead,” which features the immortal line “I choked her out quick and laid her over my shoulder/Spanked her dead ass and told her I loved her.”
The record closes with the joyous roots rock of “Jellyrollin’ All Over Heaven,” a beautiful vision of the afterlife which references a half dozen classic blues songs and performers while adding a Dixieland-styled clarinet to the musical pallet.
But when I think of this album, it’s always one line that sticks with me from “Ain’t No Grave,” the most direct and affecting number here (and not a cover as I had originally anticipated). Midway through the song Luther delivers the lines “It has been my fortune to know truly great men/I’ve heard the music of the spheres.” Obviously the line is a tribute to his father, as well as other music legends the band has been associated with over the years such as R.L. Burnside, Otha Turner, Junior Kimbrough and others, but, while the band members are far too modest to admit it, they have done much more than hear the music of the spheres. They’ve made that music. Listen to this record and you will hear, at different points, A.P. Carter, Son House, Dock Boggs, Hank Williams, Carl Perkins, Lightnin’ Hopkins, Duane Allman, Bill Monroe, Johnny Cash, Ronnie Van Zant, Sam Phillips, O.V. Wright, Jim Dickinson, and all of the other greats all rolled up into one phenomenal modern rock trio. This is “the music of the spheres.” This is the American Gospel. This is the very definition of “soul music.” Or to put it in simpler terms, Keys to the Kingdom is the North Mississippi Allstars at their finest.