LIVE: North Mississippi Allstars @ Upstate Concert Hall, 9/29/12

Review by Fred Rudofsky

While the name of the venue is a strangely generic, the music to be heard on this late September night at the Upstate Concert Hall in Clifton Park was cooking with exotic, bluesy tones and abrupt tempo and instrument changes.

The Missing Cats – a duo featuring Widespread Panic’s John “JoJo” Herman (keys/vocals) and Sherman Ewing (guitar/vocals) – opened with a spirited set of fifteen songs drawn largely from their excellent new album, Larry Brown Amen. Barrelhouse piano powered “Good for Nothing Lazy Bum,” the opening song, and from there the set went off in all sorts of directions.

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Anthony Krizon (bass), along with Luther and Cody Dickinson (guitar and drums, respectively) joined the duo for the Dylanesque “Body in the River,” a rip-snorting look at an apocalyptic world. “Larry Brown Amen” was boogie woogie catharsis for the soul, while “Vinyl Persuasion” recalled Mott the Hoople with its exhortation to “Turn your stereo up!” “Skydiver” had a wonderfully trippy, Neil Innes-styled vocal abetted by some fine guitar fills and solos. “Marissa” sounded like a song the Band would have loved to play at Big Pink with its layered dual vocals, thumping drums, wailing guitar (courtesy of Luther Dickinson) and lyrics about “temptation knocking down the door” on “the wrong side of the night.” Shifting to the meditative “Halfway to the Top,” the Missing Cats showed off their pop hooks, but went back to the rootsy sounds of “Mountain Hideaway” to close out their well-received set.

A lot has happened to the North Mississippi Allstars (NMAS) in the past three years. In 2009, the Dickinson brothers lost their beloved father, Jim, a musician and producer with credits to rival those of anyone in American music. Earlier this year, their bassist Chris Chew was sidelined by a diabetic coma and can only play gigs close to home for the time being.

Such events are enough to give anyone the blues, but the Dickinsons have channeled their energies into making music not only with their band but with numerous side projects, too.

A screen in the back of the stage projected videos of the band from throughout their career, as well as random clips of dancers and bands from festivals, juke joints and television shows. Opening with Big Maceo’s meditative “Worried Life Blues,” NMAS quickly launched into some spectacular uptempo grooves. “Shake It Baby” and “Never in All My Days” formed a seamless medley. Good friend Lightnin’ Malcolm joined next on bass, and “Mean Ol’ Wind Died Down” had the crowd singing along on the choruses. Luther broke out his electrified four-string cigar box guitar for some rollicking slide on “Mississippi Boll Weevil,” then mid-song thumped out a beat on a kettle drum before returning to the microphone and guitar for a scorching take on Mississippi Fred McDowell’s ode to good times, “Shake ‘Em on Down.”

“Moonshine” and “Bang Bang Lulu” kept the party going hard, and twice in the set Lightnin’ Malcolm picked up a Telecaster to lead the way on some Junior Kimbrough songs, recreating the trance state that one would hear in a juke joint on a hot summer night. Cody stepped up to the microphone with a guitar for the jug-band blues of “K.C. Jones,” Lightnin’ Malcolm shifting to drums and joined by JoJo Herman on keys. The dueling guitars of Luther and Cody on “ML” dazzled the audience, and their rendition of R.L. Burnside’s “Poor Black Maddie” tapped into the world boogie groove that the late Jim Dickinson always espoused.

For the newbies, seeing and hearing “Psychedelic Sex Machine” must have been a revelation: Cody Dickinson played an electrified washboard and hit a variety of pedal effects to create a swirling mix of blues and techno beats – it sounded like a tornado hitting a desert vista in full stride. “Jellyrollin’ All Over Heaven” (from Hernando) paid tribute to the beguiling of hip-shaking women (and there were a few of those in the crowd) with the perfect image of a dancing Sherilyn Fenn as Audrey Horne from “Twin Peaks” projected on the screen for good measure. Luther’s two-string guitar led the way a fiery “Rollin’ and Tumblin’,” and for the encore the band and their friends from the Missing Cats joined up for “Daisy Mae” and another classic Junior Kimbrough song, “All Night Long,” featuring tremendous vocal and guitar lines by Lightnin’ Malcolm, a fitting close to a show that many will be talking about as one of the area’s best in 2012.

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