Never mind the snow outside…a thunder and lightning storm hit inside Higher Ground the night of April 7th in the form of the North Mississippi Allstars and Hill Country Revue.
Attendees went lunging for earplugs as HCR began to play‚ even before NMA founder Cody Dickinson abandoned his washboard for electric guitar‚ but the high volume suits the style of the group: not surprisingly‚ given Allstars bassist Chris Chew is the other founder‚ the Hill Country quintet sound like an early and raw version of North Mississippi (notwithstanding the occasional heavy Skynyrd type riffing and lead vocalist Dan Coburn's intermittent mikestand waving).
It wasn't till Luther Dickinson strode on stage with his Les Paul that it became apparent how early in their evolution are HCR. In comparison to the ease with which the elder Dickinson sibling plays--not to mention the extent of his guitar vocabulary and personalized syntax--guitarist Kirk Smithhart works hard to maintain his level of competence in line with the limber nimble drumming of Ed "Hot" Cleveland.
The contrast couldn't have been more striking when the three-piece NMA began to play because the trio's immersion in their music and each other's playing betrayed none of the self-conscious restraint they evinced when in town last January supporting their last studio album Hernando. Quite the contrary‚ as Chew's bass lines reflect his mammoth physique with a vengeance‚ while Cody is playing with more power and nuance than ever‚ absolutely indefatigable on his drumkit.
Then there's Luther‚ who like his bandmates‚ has benefited from his work away from The Allstars as a member of the Black Crowes in the studio and on the stage. The guitarist seems to improve dramatically with each visit to Vermont‚ this Tuesday night‚ often dancing along with the music he was playing‚ demonstrating he's elevated himself ever higher into that rarified air inhabited by Derek Trucks: Dickinson plays in complete statements not just phrases‚ the most potent display of which might have been his note-perfect logical solo on Stephen Stills' "Love the One You're With."
By the time Chris Chew had sung lead on that tune--as much of a foil for the slight bespectacled Luther as he was on "I Would Love to Be A Hippy"--NMA had been joined on and off by every member of the Hill Country Revue‚ a reminder the Allstars had first been conceived as a rotating cast of musicians. The added firepower of a second guitar and drumkit almost‚ but not quite‚ equaled the devastating impact of Dickinson when he coaxed cries of agony and ecstasy from his Gibson at the close of the evening on Jimi Hendrix's "Hear My Train A Comin'" and made the strings absolutely sing during The Word's "Joyous Sound."
The North Mississippi repertoire hasn't expanded all that much in the interim since they recorded Keep On Marchin' at Higher Ground in 2005‚ which might be some cause for concern‚ especially since the new song Luther somewhat shyly introduced sounds like a rewrite of any number of vintage tunes like "Mississippi Boll Weevil" they'd already played that night. But the fact of the matter is‚ The North Mississippi Allstars are simply too proud of their sound‚ its roots in the blues and the camaraderie they share with each other (and HCR) to sound anything less than exhilarating and infectious.
The band(s) never dragged during the full three and half hours they inhabited the stage. As with Charlie Hunter's recent appearance in the South Burlington venue‚ it didn't seem right the capacity of the crowd didn't match the intensity of the music‚ but when and if a bonafide blues revival begins again in our musical culture‚ the big bang that gives birth to it may have begun in the Green Mountains this early spring evening around midnight.