The North Mississippi Allstars haven't altered their setlist appreciably since 2005 when they recorded their DVD Keep on Marchin' at Higher Ground. In fact‚ as discerned over the shoulder of the group's soundman this particular night‚ the guidelines for this night's performance consisted of a list of (mostly) single words from the song titles‚ especially appropriate given the trio's approach to the stage.
Bereft of any stage presence to speak of‚ NMA are so casual about their live shows‚ in fact‚ you almost don't notice the cumulative effect of their playing when the show is over. There's an impact the Allstars generate‚ but they let it arise naturally from the chemistry between the three: they contrive nothing. Little wonder the comparatively small but devoted crowd seemed stunned when the band walked off stage as nonchalantly as they had walked on two hours before.
Hearing Luther and Cody Dickinson and Chris Chew on this tour might be remarkably similar to sitting in on a rehearsal: the band runs through familiar and maddeningly similar material‚ never belaboring any one song‚ stretching out only slightly when they get caught up spontaneously in the momentum of the moment. As often as not‚ endings were more than a little abrupt‚ though never truly sloppy‚ but nowhere near dramatic flourishes either.
The North Mississippi Allstars may be ostensibly on the road to promote their latest studio album Keys to the Kingdom‚ but they only chose to play a precious few cuts from -- and they didn't announce them for what they were -- while Luther's hurried reference to the cd as they finished for the night hardly consisted of hawking product. From all appearances‚ the group was just out to play for themselves‚ knowing they have an audience who can appreciate what they do and how they do it.
No doubt this is why the trio continue to play clubs on their own--as if broadening their audience is not really their goal or responsibility--and further perhaps why so few tickets for this show were sold in advance. The Allstars are anxious to perpetuate what they see as a time-honored tradition of the blues‚ but‚ as obvious by this show at least‚ will do it almost exclusively on their own terms. This threesome refuses to prettify their style for mass consumption.
So‚ while frontman Luther's voice once seemed far from the task of singing in the conventional sense‚ his off-handed hollers within Howlin' Wolf's "Sittin on Top of the World" and Skip James' "Rollin' and Tumblin'" were perfectly suitable to the raw instrumental sound he created with his comrades. With little polish and no pop‚ more than a few selections sounded too much alike for their own good‚ particularly if you can't appreciate the innate continuity of the blues genre. For instance‚ two perpetual entries in their repertoire‚ "Mississippi Boll Weevil" and "Po' Black Maddie‚" are essentially the same tune‚ while echoes of "Shake What Your Mama Gave You" appear in at least three other numbers.
Consequently‚ even a die-hard NMA fan would agree a bit more structure and diversity of material in live outings like this could make a world of difference. Either Hendrix' "Hear My Train' A Comin'‚" once a regular inclusion or Dylan's "(Stuck Inside of Mobile with the) Memphis Blues Again" (from the new album) might've been fodder for more extended improvisation than otherwise occurred this rainy windy autumn evening. Perhaps the group is a bit too anxious not to be lumped into the generic 'jamband' classification?
Regardless‚ to thoroughly enjoy the North Mississippi Allstars these days‚ you must love the band‚ the blues or both. At least based on their most recent visit to the venue they've visited so often over the years (in both its locations)‚ the Southern threesome are making no overt overtures to bring in new converts or position themselves as anything other than what they are: a blues band almost wholly devoted to a time-honored tradition.