After almost a quarter of a century of releasing highly-acclaimed, Grammy-nominated records, North Mississippi Allstars have released their 11th album, ‘Up and Rolling’. The Dickinson brothers, Luther and Cody, have once again demonstrated their sublime songcraft and expert musicianship on one of the year’s most eagerly anticipated releases.
The story behind ‘Up and Rolling’ is an intriguing one. Back in 1996, shortly before the brothers formed North Mississippi Allstars, they played host to a photographer, Wyatt McSpadden, who wanted to take shots of local musicians and capture the musical spirit and heritage of North Mississippi on film. They visited Otha Turner, Junior Kimbrough and RL Burnside, watching the legends play, sing and tell stories; McSpadden went about his work quietly, preserving these moments forever. Over two decades later, the photos long-forgotten, McSpadden sought out the Dickinsons and shared his images, which transported the brothers into their musical past. Inspired, the Dickinsons set about producing an album that serves as a soundtrack to those photos and memories. Their career, with endless touring, has seen them journey far from home. This album takes them back.
‘Up and Rolling’ is an album rooted in the past but reaching out for the new. Throughout the record, the Dickinsons are joined by an incredible set of collaborators, including Cedric Burnside, RL’s grandson, and Sharde Thomas, Otha Turner’s granddaughter. This sense of time and musical tradition circling and cycling permeates the album, especially on songs like ‘Up and Rolling’ and ‘Drunk Outdoors’. These are both slow, rhythmic blues numbers with languid guitar solos and beautiful vocal melodies, particularly the former, which is one of the album’s strongest songs. The lyrics and music combine to soundtrack these musicians’ young lives growing up around the Mississippi and also give a sense of the community that is North Mississippi Allstars: “Grew up a Mississippi hippie tripping LSD / Smoking stems ‘n’ seeds and drinking mushroom tea…We love to play these hill country blues ’til you satisfied / We out on the road, Lord knows, we all love to ride…Out in the streets with our friends / Yeah, we be up and rolling.” Both tracks also showcase the wonderfully expressive voice of Sharde Thomas and the way her vocal merges perfectly with Luther Dickenson’s relaxed tones.
Various vocal combinations are a real feature of ‘Up and Rolling’, never more important than on the soulful gospel-blues of ‘What You Gonna Do?’ featuring the great Mavis Staples. With flourishes of Hammond organ and Staples’s characterful singing, this grooving 1965 track from The Staple Singers transports the listener to back into the musical heritage of Americana. Equally successful is the collaboration with Jason Isbell and Duane Betts on ‘Mean Old World’. The brothers’ father, Jim Dickinson, recorded this with Eric Clapton and Duane Allman all those years ago. Here, it’s a roving, rolling, easy-going 6 ½ minute blues-rock epic, particularly notable for the twisting solos that emerge organically from the melody, feeling like improvisations, and the sense that this would be an incredible live piece.
There are many highlights on this consistently pleasing record. However, the opening and closing tracks, ‘Call That Gone’ and ‘Take My Hand, Precious Lord’ are special. On the former, Sharde Thomas echoes Luther Dickinson’s lines to great effect and the fluid, rolling percussion and winding, extended solo kick off the album strongly. The latter, featuring Cedric Burnside, with its excellent vocal performance and bluesy translation of a gospel favourite, is a fitting end to the album. There is then a 40 second burst of Otha Turner on ‘Otha’s Bye Bye Baby’ acting as a final farewell and reinforcing the strongly historical nature and inspiration behind the album.
When North Mississippi Allstars, along with Jason Isbell, sing “Well, it’s a mean old world / When you try to live it by yourself,” it sums up the collaborative, communal nature of both the band and this album. The history, musical heritage, Mississippi lifestyle and photographic inspiration behind ‘Up and Rolling’ make this a work of joy and elevate the record above the ordinary. It’s full of melody and musicianship and the listener can feel the delight the players took in performing together. This is an album to lose yourself in.