North Mississippi Allstars
Keys to the Kingdom
(Songs of the South)
First Appeared in The Music Box, November 2011, Volume 18, #8
Written by John Metzger
Wed November 16, 2011, 05:30 AM CST
The lives of rock stars are made to look glamorous, but being in a band is ridiculously hard work. No doubt, this is where many aspiring musicians go astray. They simply lack the drive that is necessary to keep pushing forward. Everyone — even the most successful artists — hits a point where it is easier to coast than it is to find new sources of inspiration. This is why there are more groups that have achieved modest goals — a hit single or a critically acclaimed album — and faded into oblivion than there are those with long, sustained careers.
For the better part of the past decade, the North Mississippi Allstars has appeared as if it would fall into the former category. Eleven years ago, on the heels of the release of its attention-grabbing debut Shake Hands with Shorty, the group seemed destined for greatness. There was something eerie about the way in which its founders Luther and Cody Dickinson — along with bass player Chris Chew — captured the essence of the southern blues and classic rock idioms. Undeniably, a supernatural presence wafted through its hard-hitting interpretations of tracks by Junior Kimbrough, R.L. Burnside, and Mississippi Fred McDowell.
Shake Hands with Shorty proved to be a difficult act to follow. For a while, the North Mississippi Allstars tried to head down a similar path, albeit by toning down its jam-rock excursions. As it moved from 51 Phantom to Polaris, however, one could feel the group’s identity not just fail to develop but also begin to slip away. As interest in the North Mississippi Allstars waned, the Dickinsons went their separate ways: Luther began to tag along with The Black Crowes, while Cody founded a new band: Hill Country Revue.
It could be because the Dickinson brothers’ spirits were rejuvenated by their outside projects. It also could be because as they aged, they also matured. Or, it simply could be because the passing of their father — legendary producer Jim Dickinson — gave them the kick in the pants that they needed. Whatever the reason, the North Mississippi Allstars sounds as vital and impressive on its latest set Keys to the Kingdom as it did on Shake Hands with Shorty.
For the record, throughout Keys to the Kingdom, the North Mississippi Allstars steers clear of the improvisational forays that made Shake Hands with Shorty so memorable. Nevertheless, almost in spite of the tighter control that the group exerts over its latest affair, Keys to the Kingdom charges aggressively through its alternating moods of mourning and celebration. Over the course of the set, the North Mississippi Allstars draws upon all of its favorite influences: Echoes of the Rolling Stones line This A’Way; shades of the Allman Brothers flutter through the snarling Jumpcable Blues; and the steaminess of Let It Roll is frequently reminiscent of Eric Clapton’s work.
With Keys to the Kingdom, though, the North Mississippi Allstars has something more to say. In essence, the outfit pays homage to Jim Dickinson via the musical terrain it covers, the lyrical content of the suite of songs it assembled, and the guests it invited to the wake. Mavis Staples lends a gospel presence to The Meeting, and Ry Cooder adds spice to Ain’t No Grave. There are numerous nods to life, death, and the great beyond, and the direction in which the North Mississippi Allstars took Bob Dylan’s Stuck Inside of Mobile with the Memphis Blues Again — twisting it into a winding, hill-country tune — was suggested by Dickinson to his sons before he died.
Considering the emotional space from which the album was born, it shouldn’t be surprising to find that Keys to the Kingdom resonates so deeply. At least for a moment, the North Mississippi Allstars has turned a pivotal corner in its career. With its musical versatility, its inspired performances, and its greater emphasis on assembling a cohesive album, the outfit certainly has laid the groundwork for a mid-career resurgence. At the very least, Keys to the Kingdom would have made Jim Dickinson very proud.
Of Further Interest...
Keys to the Kingdom is available from
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1 Star: Pitiful
2 Stars: Listenable
3 Stars: Respectable
4 Stars: Excellent
5 Stars: Can't Live Without It!!
Copyright © 2011 The Music Box