Bluff City Ball
December 31, 2008
It’s been a busy year for the North Mississippi Allstars, and it culminated in one big party on New Year’s Eve on their home turf, Memphis. The Allstars brought out family and old and new friends to play the second Bluff City Ball at the Orpheum Theatre.
The evening’s festivities started just after 7:00 PM; it was an all-ages show which meant the whole shindig had to be done at around 12:30…a tough task given the roster for the night included four bands. So, the first set started relatively early, and the "opener," family patriarch Jim Dickinson, played to a fairly empty room. The Orpheum holds just shy of 2,500 and at its fullest, the show held just over 40% of capacity.
Dickinson was backed by his sons’ first band, D.D.T. – Luther Dickinson on guitar, Cody Dickinson on drums, and Paul Taylor on bass. Unfortunately, even with the stellar backing group, Jim failed to get the crowd going. Perhaps it was just the sparse audience, but aside from a few cheers here and there, his set was a bit of a snoozer.
However, the same can’t be said for the second act, Amy Lavere. The stand-up bass player has been gaining quite a bit of following and critical acclaim, and her set on New Year’s Eve will only serve to build a fan base. Backed by Paul Taylor (his second appearance, this time on drums) and Steve Selvidge on guitar, Lavere was stellar
The squeaky-voiced bassist thumped away on her stand-up bass while seranding the growing audience with selections from both of her albums. After a story about how her father showed her the grave plots he had already purchased for her (which, she said, was sweet yet morbid at the same time), she commented on how, "if you really love someone, buy them their final resting place" and then played a great version of "Killing Him."
The backing band was nothing short of great as well. It’s hard enough to get out there and play one instrument, but Taylor followed his bass in Dickinson’s band with just top-notch drumming behind Lavere. And, Selvidge is a vastly-underrated guitarist. Selvidge on stage kept with the familial theme of the evening – his father Sid played in Mudboy and the Neutrons with Jim Dickinson. Steve clearly had the family talent handed down, because his guitar playing was fabulous.
After Lavere wrapped up her set, she gave a quick good bye and left the stage to applause, giving way to Lucero. Frankly, there’s not a lot about these guys that doesn’t project the rock-and-roll image. From the tattoed arms of lead guitarist Brian Venable to the flying hair of frenetic drummer Roy Berry, these guys look and sound the part.
By the time Lucero’s rowdy set started, the seats had filled considerably with fans as whiskey-soaked as the gravelly voice of lead singer Ben Nichols, and some begun pushing towards the stage, packing the front of the house in tightly.
Musically, Lucero was decent (and LOUD) yet uninspiring. They play good songs but really didn’t seem to get half of the crowd moving. However, the other half of the crowd ate it up – some were clearly feeling it, and more power to them. There were definitely fists pumping in the air and rock fingers pointing towards the stage as the alt/country/rock band fired through their set.
The main event, the North Mississippi Allstars finally hit the stage around 10:30, and the crowd roared with approval. Luther commented on how it was good to be home, and they were off and running. Hometown shows mean so much to both the bands and the fans; most bands seem to just bring it a little bit more when they’re playing in front of their friends and family. The set opened with "Sitting On Top Of The World," done the way that only the Allstars can do it – hill country.
As remarkable as it sounds, the Allstars as a whole have clearly gained so much from Luther being on tour with The Black Crowes. Luther, for one, has grown in confidence. Not that he didn’t have it before, but it just seemed like he went out on more, or maybe thinner limbs than he did when the band last played in town earlier in the year.
Also, being in a two-guitar band seems to have tempered his playing, in a good way. It seemed like he slowed down a bit, feeling less need to fill in every space, at times playing fewer notes, in a good way. Being in a band with another guitarist, you need to pick and choose your moments, but with a trio there’s so much more room to throw in extra notes. On New Year’s Eve, he just seemed more calculating, for lack of better term.
Cody and bassist Chris Chew have spent their time sans Luther in the Hill Country Revue (who would make an appearance later in the evening), and the results there seem to have translated to the Allstars as well. Cody’s drumming has improved so much, and Chew seemed to be stepping out a little more as well – his vocals were especially strong, both on lead and backing. He seemed to sing with more conviction, perhaps a result of the weekly soul cover gigs he’s been playing around town. All in all, 2008 seems to have been a great year for the Allstars, if indirectly.
"Shake ‘Em On Down" was solid, and followed by three from the band’s stellar 2008 release, Hernando. Chew really shined on vocals on "I’d Love To Be A Hippie," one of the stand-out tracks from the set. Luther just shredded his guitar solo on the tune.
As "Po Black Maddie" poured from the PA, things got jumping in the Orpheum. Luther’s solo was scorching, and as he blazed up and down his fretboard, the song segued into "Skinny Woman" and Cody and Chew’s Hill Country Revue bandmates all came out on stage, creating one mega-hill country jam.
With Kirk Smithart on second lead, Ed Cleveland on second drums, and Dan Coburn on vocals, the band took on a more Allman-esque sound. The double drums sounded like a freight train running through the old theatre, and Luther and Smithart weaved in and out of each other’s solos, the latter playing the Dickey Betts roll in the duo to the former’s Duane Allman.
Not to be outdone, Cody stepped out from behind his kit and picked up a guitar and led the hybrid band through the instrumental "Goin’ Home," turning the dual guitars into a trio. With the calendar page about to turn to 2009, the band broke into "All Night Long" and welcomed the new year, Allstars style.
The group blazed through "Snake Drive," a song that typifies what the Allstars attempt to do each night on stage. It’s the perfect blend of old-school blues with new-school attitude. As Luther worked his pickup selector up and down, coaxing from his guitar the sound of a DJ scratching a record, the crowd roarded.
Then, as quickly as their set started – damn you, all-ages curfew – it was done. The band thanked the crowd and retreated back stage.
Surely enough, they quickly emerged. Chew took the vocals again, on a great cover of "Love The One You’re With." It was the perfect tune to bring in 2009. The set ended with Cody’s signature electric washboard jam, and a great version of "Mean Ol’ Wind Died Down."
New Year’s Eve is about new beginnings. In 2008 the Allstars certainly had their share, with Luther joining the Crowes and Cody and Chew in the Hill Country Revue. But, new year’s eve was a reminder of just how much the Allstars still have to give. Here’s to hoping we see more of it in 2009.
Click the thumbnail to see more photos from the show