North Mississippi Allstars and Missing Cats

Cody on washboard, Luther on drums, Malcom on bass, JoJo on keys. Not pictured: gang of female fans wearing ” More Washboard!” t-shirts.

Concert Review- NMA at Ogden Theater, Denver, CO 9/15/2012


( Phledge gets loose on Colfax – a street in Denver, not his latest scrip –  to commune with his heroes! – Editors)

      The opening hook of Keith Richards’ page-turning ” Life ” is the hilarious tale of Keith and Ronnie’s 400-mile drive from Memphis through west Arkansas on their way to a sold-out show in the Cotton Bowl in Dallas. The boys stop in a redneck bar, decide to get high for 40 minutes in the Men’s room, and proceed to occupy legions of the local gendarmes, the Highway Patrol, and authorities up to the Governor’s manse for the next 12 hours over the suspected contents ( not Tupelo Honey, Keith admits) of their rented ride parked outside the roadhouse.
And who sent them on this happy jaunt through country straight out of Charlie Daniels’ ” Uneasy Rider” ? As Keef says,  ” Jim Dickinson, the southern boy who played piano on “Wild Horses” , had told us that the Texarkana landscape was worth the car ride”.

Luther freestylin’ on… bass drum?.. as Malcom thumps along

Yes, that Muscle Shoals session that the Stones casually threw into their tour gave us        ” Wild Horses” and ” Brown Sugar”,  and later nearly caused a riot in Dallas had Keef and Ronnie missed the gig just for a  maintenance dose of that pharmaceutical Merck blow in the boys’ room. Jim Dickinson, a Memphis session pianist, had fortuitously been invited to the top-secret session at Jimmy Johnson’s studio, and struck up a kinship with Keef over the latter’s newfound affinity for southern country music, spurred by Keef’s time with Gram Parsons, who was not in Muscle Shoals, despite stories over the years. As Jim says,        ” Well, hell, if Gram Parsons had been there, I certainly would never have played the piano; it would have been him” .   And leave it to Jim to straighten out that perpetual controversy over the second verse of ” Brown Sugar, and the name ” Skydog Slaver”: ” Skydog is what they called Duane Allman in Muscle Shoals, because he was high all the time. And Jagger heard somebody say it, and he thought it was a cool word so he used it”.

Musicians in Southern towns like Memphis, Nawlins, and Muscle Shoals in the 60s and early 70s  were living out what Patterson Hood would later call the ” duality of the Southern Thing” ( “proud of the glory; stare down the shame…”), making great music with people of all races and cultures, while the struggles of the civil rights era were taking place within small-arms range. Small independent studios like Stax in Memphis and Fame in Muscle Shoals produced a stunning array of great songs by black and white artists, and might arguably have been the genesis, along with Nashville, of what is known as Americana today. Jim Dickinson emerged from this musical melting pot with a simple, direct sense of what ” good music” sounds like, and he became a well-known session player and producer. “I may not be the world’s best piano player, but I’ll put my taste up against anybody’s”. Jim located his family in Hernando, Mississippi, in the Hill Country populated by blues greats like Fred McDowell, R.L. Burnside, Kenny Brown, and Junior Kimbrough. To Jim’s amazement, his two sons grew up to not only embrace this music, but to play with and befriend the legends who were eager to see their historic sound not only honored, but updated by the young instrumental wizards. Jim nurtured the boys, produced their records, and mentored them as respectful students of a worthy genre of American music.

Jim was a tireless advocate for artists, and would often close cover letters  sent with the latest tapes or CDs to promoters and media outlets by saying, ” World Boogie is coming!”  Most figured this meant music as an irresistible unifying force. But as several have pointed out, surely Jim thought that World Boogie was already here. He passed in August, 2009, and the boys produced and recorded a great CD send-off to him, ” Keys to the Kingdom”.

I first saw the NMA about eight years ago in Minny with Gebippe at the famous Cabooze. Yes, that’s a train caboose, now a club. He’d turned me on to the “Electric Blue Watermelon” CD and I was anxious to see the boys live in a small venue. Luther turned out to be a revelation: a truly great slide player and compelling singer despite limited range. Cody was like a backwoods Charlie Watts on drums: always driving the sound, but never in the way. The younger Dickinson also played a nasty guitar himself, and blew out the crowd with his amplified washboard soloing. The bassist Chris Chew thumped along like a pulsating coffeepot, and stepped out for a soulful uptempo version of Al Green’s ” Love and Happiness”.  Gebippe and I later saw them opening for and backing John Hiatt at the Ogden in Denver, followed by shows over the years at the Freebird in Jax, the Boulder Theater, the Greeley Blues Festival, the Bluebird in Denver, and a memorable night at the Orange Peel in Asheville where we stood so close that Big Chew was hitting on my date, the Notorious Pamalama. I came to love and respect not only their artistry, but their integrity. They were playing exactly what they wanted to play, with no apparent concern for current trends or commercial appeal.

So when I heard they were coming to town, I called in several.. um, favors, and scored VIP for me and Il Padrone, my driver and consigliere. As we stood on Colfax outside the Ogden for our early entry, up walked Cody and JoJo, the keyboard player for the opener Missing Cats. The skinny Cody could not have been more gracious, stopping to chat with fans, and inviting us all in. We got to attend the soundcheck and see the boys working out endings to songs, and some cool improvising of the finale to the Stones’ ” Can’t You Hear Me Knockin’?”. I recognized Lightnin’ Malcom, whom I’d seen at Springing the Blues with Cedric Burnside doing Hill Country tunes, standing in for Chew on bass. Chew has had health issues of late, but is expected back soon ( See our Calendar page for update – Ed.). Then the Missing Cats did their soundcheck, as we realized that the NMA would be backing the Cats’ opening set. Hey, the mo’ Dickinsons, the mo’ betta!

Malcom, Luther and JoJo at soundcheck

After the soundcheck, the boys came offstage to meet the alleged VIPs and sign posters, and you would have thought they were the neighborhood garage band stopping by to make sure they weren’t playing too loud. Just a pair of nice Southern boys genuinely happy to see people show up to hear them play. Rendered dumbstruck in their presence, I was luckily able to mutter some thanks for coming to Colorado before they strolled backstage.

The Cats’ set was quite inspired, with JoJo Herman on keys and Sherman Ewing on guitar backed by Luther and Cody. The Cats harmonized nicely on a number of clever originals, and left space for Luther to solo on several tunes. I would love to have heard their CD,       ” Larry Brown Amen” before the show to catch the tunes quicker; it’s got some catchy stuff.

After a short intermission, the Dickinsons returned with Lightnin’ Malcom and kicked into a rolling set of classic Hill Country tunes like ” Drop Down Mama”, ” Skinny Woman”, and       ” Po’ Black Maddie”, and threw in originals like “This A Way”, ” Shake”, and the rearranged cover of Dylan’s ” Memphis Blues Again”. Cody wailed on the washboard, and traded licks on guitar with Luther. Malcom and Luther each took a spin on the drum kit, and JoJo came on to add depth near the end of the set. The crowd had swelled rapidly once the NMA walked on, and was now wildly rocking along to the rolling, irresistible beat, as Luther tailored the R.L. Burnside ” Georgia Women”  lyrics to the venue:

” I don’t know, but I been told: them Denver women… got a sweet jelly roll..”

Cody, Luther, Malcom, and JoJo

Much to the delight of the crowd, many of whom were hardcore fans who had followed the band on previous swings through the state, and had memorized the Boulder Fox Theater recording that the band self-released, ” Boulderado”. The fans roared the band back for an encore of more thumping bass, driving skins, and wailing slide until… the lights came on, and a magical night of music was a pounding memory in the brain. How had it passed so quickly?
The crowd shuffled out, heads shaking in amazement. World Boogie had arrived.

Phledge has been returned from VIP to Mere Poobah, and we’re all the better for it! – Ed.

One thought on “North Mississippi Allstars and Missing Cats

  1. Great to hear such love and appreciation for the late Mr. Dickinson, Mississippi hill country blues and their progeny.

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