Mississippi Ear Burning

Speaking to singer/guitarist Luther Dickinson is a real Dood Experience. Dickinson punctuates his conversation with Beavis & Butthead laughter and phrases his sentences in the manner of a bud-head who came of age on the beaches of Southern California. He's a friendly sort, but he sounds a bit addled, goofy, as if he might have sucked on one bong too many.

This would be unremarkable were it not for the fact that Dickinson is a product of rural Mississippi, of all things, and a musician whose trade is torturing American musical traditions. As front man for the North Mississippi Allstars (and also for the Word), Dickinson and his respective bands twist blues and gospel into something that sounds like prime Ramones rocking out after a feast of greens, ham hocks and corn liquor. Pose your own stupid analogy when the Allstars play the Galaxy Concert Theatre on Thursday, Sept. 26.

The strange beauty of this unlikely marriage of down-home style with Keanu Reeves attitude is that the Allstars (which features Luther's brother Cody Dickinson on drums and Chris Chew on bass) and the Word (which tosses keyboardist John Medeski of acid jazz heavies Medeski, Martin & Wood and guitarist Robert Randolph into the mix) make it work better than it ought to. In both groups, the hooks are raw and relentless, the vibe fierce and primal, the volume deafening. It begins to makes more sense, though, when one considers how it all started.

When the blues were first recorded in the 1920s, such pioneers as Charlie Patton and Son House played a raw, primal, psychotic-sounding thrum that bears almost no resemblance to most of today's slicked-up blues stars. And while ensuing decades saw the blues become more sophisticated (read: diluted), the sounds that trailblazers such as Patton and House established early in the century never became archaic in pockets of the deep South. It was this time warp that spawned the Allstars.

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"When I was in my early 20s, I discovered the Mississippi hill-country music scene, the whole Fat Possum Records experience," explains Dickinson. "That really blew my mind—and led to the beginning of the Allstars. We all listened to just about everything at one time or another growing up. I always listened to Delta blues, Memphis blues, Chicago blues. But those were all things of the past. What was going on that I discovered was not only this cool, funky, raw, primitive form of blues, but it was also still alive right here in my own back yard. That was really exciting."

Mississippi's Fat Possum Records is home to R.L. Burnside, Junior Kimbrough, T-Model Ford and several other regional acts which specialize in an exquisitely crude and greasy variation of country blues (although Fat Possum is also known for heretical blues/hip-hop fusion albums as well). The music of men like Burnside and the late Kimbrough is a bare-knuckled distillation of the style down to its purest, most basic elements, like Son House drunk off his ass, playing loud electric guitar. From this juke-joint-spawned, whiskey-marinated form of Southern funk, Dickinson and company took it to the next logical step: the blues as punk rock.

"We're not a blues band at all, we're a rock & roll band," Dickinson admits. "I grew up loving what I call traditional psychedelic rock, stuff like Hendrix and the Allman Brothers, and we definitely bring some of that into it. The bass player, Chris, he grew up playing gospel in church. And then Cody, he listens to a lot of Slipknot and hip-hop and stuff. We listen to everything and bring a little bit of everything we listen to our own music."

The Word was born when the Allstars toured with Medeski, Martin & Wood a few years ago. There was talk of hooking up with Medeski for some time, but it never came together until last year. Shortly before the quartet was to begin recording an album, they met slide guitarist Randolph and became a five-piece group.

"It was just gonna be the four of us, originally," says Dickinson. "Robert grew up playing in church, too. He didn't know anything about our band or John's band, he'd never even heard of us, which was cool."

Even though the Allstars and the Word stake no claim to being blues or gospel artists, one has to wonder what sort of slings and arrows get directed at them from outraged purists—guys like me! Does Dickinson get branded an interloper, a blasphemer?

"No, man, and those aren't our people anyway," he says. "Look, I'm a blues purist. I listen to the rawest stuff I can find. I think there's a lot of stuff that's marketed as blues that's not blues, but it's really just rock & roll. So at least I take a little bit of responsibility."

Surprisingly, I approve—at least mostly. Both groups cut a wicked groove and have an undeniable feel for the essence of the music they so gleefully warp. Yet as a Certified Old Fart, I 'fess up to a natural distrust of the volume and forced attitude Dickinson and company wallow in—not unlike the group Blueshammer in the great flick Ghost World. That said, these are young guys, they're a product of their era and environment, and in a way, it's refreshing to have young blues artists not pretending to be grizzled old black guys.

"I'm just a product of what I've been exposed to," says Dickinson. "One half is old blues records, and the other half is MTV, the stuff of my own generation."

Fair enough. But turn the fuck down, willya, son?

The North Mississippi Allstars perform at the Galaxy Concert Theatre, 3503 S. Harbor Blvd., Santa Ana, (714) 957-0600. Thurs., Sept. 26, 8 p.m. $15.

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