One of the most interesting and unique bands to emerge from the South over the past several years must surely be The North Mississippi Allstars.
Founded by brothers Luther and Cody Dickinson, the progenies of famed musician and engineer Jim Dickinson whos produced everyone from Alex Chilton to The Replacements, and played keyboards for The Stones and Dylan The Allstars began as a simple tribute to the HIll Country blues music they loved as kids.
Over time, however, the band welcomed the guitar playing son of the late bluesman R.L. Burnside, and allowed their scope to widen. It now includes elements of gospel, R & B, modern pop, country and even alternative rock.
Their latest album, Polaris, was a huge departure from their previous two, and while that left many longtime fans a bit stunned, the brothers insist they had that in mind all along, and merely waited for their third LP to pull out all the stops.
Now, on the verge of their next release (an EP of outtakes and demos that includes covers of an obscure Jagger/Richards number and a not-so-obscure Robbie Robertson classic), theyre heading to Savannah to open for legendary funk madman George Clinton and his Parliament-Funkadelic, a group that they supported once in the past at a rain-drenched outdoor gig in Atlanta.
I spoke with bassist and founding member Chris Chew by phone about the past, present and future of his critically-adored roots band.
Connect Savannah: So what was it like playing with George Clinton?
Chris Chew: I dont wanna jinx this gig, because last time we opened for him it started to pour right when he went on. It was a great show, though. Now, his uniforms are definitely... well, I guess George Clinton... well, you know. Theyre wearin diapers and all that.
CS: It makes you wonder if maybe that guy simply needs to wear those diapers.
CC: Well, thats what I was wondering, too. (Laughs). I just be quiet about that, you know?
CS: How is touring behind Polaris different from those earlier albums?
CC: Well,the music is totally different, you know. So, watching the expressions on fans faces that were kinda stuck on Shake Hands With Shorty or 51 Phantom... some are diggin it, but some of arent. I guess well gain a few and well lose a few, but you know, it all works out. The older blues type fans dont really seem to understand our musical tastes. You cant please everybody.
CS: Well, Polaris is by no means a one-track record.
CC: Exactly. Exactly. This is a good record. If people would sit down and listen to it, theyd probably see where we were coming from. Some folks want us to just stay playin the old Hill Country blues. Now, we love that, but we gotta test the boundaries, you know?
CS: Do you think youll continue in this experimental vein, or will you go back to making very regimented records?
CC: We just did some demos last week, and the new songs are definitely closer to the foot-stompin bluesy-rock stuff. Itll be more like just one element of our music.
CS: Whats it like to be in a band with two brothers?
CC: (Laughs) That is definitely a challenge! Because theyre great musicians. Theyre actually musical wizards in their own right, but sometimes, you know, they feud and fight like a madness. Cause you know one boy think hes right, and the other boy think hes right... and theres the fight, you know what I mean? Fussy, fussy, fussy. But its great to watch, because theyre both really intelligent and theyre only worried about the same thing, which is the music. Both of them have different tastes. I mean, Cody is more into pop icons, and Luther is Hill Country blues all the way. Im sure he likes some pop, but if you listen to his MP3 player, its a lot of old blues and slide guitar. If you listen to Codys iPod, you gotta lot of pop, like Justin Timberlake. Its two totally different directions.
CS: So youre tellin me that Cody listens to Justin Timberlake?
CC: Oh, Cody loves Justin! He loves Justin.
CS: (Laughs) Thats funny.
CC: That is funny. (Laughs)
CS: So whats played on the bus stereo?
CC: The stereos up there just for decoration, as far as were concerned. I got my iPod, Luther got his MP3, Codys got his computer. So many different taste buds. Our stage tech likes Johnny Cash, and our soundguy likes Widespread Panic.
CS: You guys do a few covers on your new EP, so I assume there must be some groups you guys agree on.
CC: Oh, yeah. Well, we all like The Stones. We all like The Band. Those guys were great. They were so talented. Im talking really talented. And the Replacements, well, Luthers dad worked with them a lot back in the day, so we thought we should put one of their songs on there. We all agreed those were great songs.
CS: It must be wonderful to be around someone like their dad who has such a history in this industry.
CC: I tell you, hes in the studio working with us on the next record, and to me, his vibe or his scene is just like sunshine. Its like a burst of energy. Hes an older guy, but hes all about it, and hes gonna be behind the boards for this new album. I respect his wisdom.
CS: This seems like a fun band to be in.
CC: It is. The road can get hard for me, because Im the good boy. I dont do anything but play music. I dont party at all. Some nights theres a bunch goin on in the front of the bus and Im the quiet guy in the back. Thats just me. I did all that in college. (Laughs). But once I put my bass guitar on, that goes away. Im there to give you my best. Im ready to go.
CS: Where do you see this band headed?
CC: Were just grass roots, but were gonna be around in twenty years. We dont wanna be no one-hit wonder.
CS: What can people in Savannah expect from you upcoming gig?
CC: Were gonna go from the first album to the third album. Were gonna take em on a musical journey. If you like rock, well give you some. If you like blues, well give you some. If you want to hear some gospel, well throw a little of that on you.
The North Mississippi Allstars open for George Clinton & Parliament-Funkadelic in Forsyth Park on Friday night at 7 pm. The show is free and open to all ages.