Hardcore Troubadour

Steve Earle - North Mississippi Allstars

July 28, 2000

First Appeared in The Music Box, September 2000, Volume 7, #9

Written by John Metzger


When this concert was originally announced, it was unlikely that Chicago’s Lincoln Park Zoo really understood what they had managed to accomplish. After all, the venue’s Jammin’ at the Zoo concert series has generally played host to a parade of mediocre local acts — not national touring bands. However, by pairing Steve Earle & the Dukes with opening act the North Mississippi Allstars for an event on July 28, the zoo very well may have put together the best concert slate of the year. The North Mississippi Allstars have been off to the races since the release of their debut Shake Hands with Shorty. The album is currently the frontrunner for best original jam band release as well as best blues release, and it should earn them consideration as the best new group of the year. Likewise, Earle’s latest release Transcendental Blues is arguably his best effort to date. Since its release last month, it has been showered with critical praise and will no doubt figure prominently in many lists of the year’s best albums.

Surprisingly, Earle performed only half of the songs from Transcendental Blues during his curfew-shortened set. No matter — they still served as the foundation and framework for his performance. He opened the show by mirroring the first three tracks of the album — diving headfirst into the fuzzed-out, meditational grunge of the title track, shuffling his way through the heady swirl of Everyone’s in Love with You, and bounding through the consummate country-rock of the transitory Another Town. Later, Earle rattled around inside the mind of a death row inmate on a haunting rendition of Over Yonder (Jonathan’s Song) that filled the air with bone-chilling sadness.

Yet, rather than becoming the sole focus of the show, the newer material instead illuminated the songs of Earle’s past and demonstrated that Transcendental Blues is an album he had been working towards for quite some time. The stark loneliness of My Old Friend the Blues found Earle taking solace in music, and it seems that this is what has gotten him through the darkest hours of his life. Like a sponge, he absorbed all the sounds he has heard throughout his life, and now this rich stew has mutated into beams of light that have burst forth and eliminated the darkness from his soul. It’s no wonder, then, that Earle is capable of moving so freely from one sound to the next, while still making everything feel so connected.

On one hand, Telephone Road playfully glided along a Traveling Wilbury’s rockabilly beat, while Billy & Bonnie caught Bob Wills, Townes Van Zandt, and Buddy Holly in a sublime square dance. On the other extreme, NYC roared full-throttle at the legacy of The Velvet Underground before disintegrating into cascading waves of feedback and crash landing in the adrenaline-soaked The Unrepentant. Likewise, the encore’s punishing trilogy of Nirvana’s Breed, The Bottle Rockets’ I’ll Be Coming Around, and the Chambers Brothers’ Time Has Come Today showcased Earle’s penchant for exorcizing his demons through hard-edged rock. Earle is fortunately not the last of the hardcore troubadours, but he is one of the best.

Unfortunately, the North Mississippi Allstars did not fare quite as well, and their performance did not live up to expectations. Make no mistake — this is going to be a great ensemble, but most of their 75-minute set drifted aimlessly and lacked consistency as the group struggled to find their voice. Further complicating matters was the fact that they traveled at one speed — albeit a blazing and intense one — no doubt due to their limited repertoire.

Nevertheless, when they did come together, the trio proved to be quite the tour de force. On a raging Goin’ Down South, Chris Chew’s machine gun bass locked in step with the power-punch percussion of Cody Dickinson to create a formidable rhythmic onslaught. Likewise, a pairing of the traditional Station Blues with the gospel-tinged bonus track from Shake Hands with Shorty steamrolled its way over a Bo Diddley backbeat. The man to watch, however, is guitarist Luther Dickinson, whose mercurial aural assaults shape-shifted from Jimi Hendrix to Duane Allman to Dickey Betts with spellbinding precision. The North Mississippi Allstars clearly have more than their share of talent, and with time they will grow, learn, and gel. That is a delightfully frightening thought indeed.

Transcendental Blues is available from Barnes & Noble.
To order, Click Here!

Shake Hands with Shorty is available from
Barnes & Noble. To order, Click Here!


Copyright © 2000 The Music Box