Tuesday, June 9, 2009

June 9, North Mississippi Allstars, "Shake Hands With Shorty"

Artist: North Mississippi Allstars
Album: Shake Hands With Shorty
Year: 1999
Label: Tone-Cool

As the world of music began to sink into a predictable, stale state at the end of the 1990's, there were a few bands that attempted to revive the entire scene on their own. Throwing studio trickery and computers to the side, the southern trio known as the North Mississippi Allstars managed to produce one of the finest roots rock records ever made. Part Allman Brothers, part ZZ Top, and all original, the music that the band plays is a nod to the best that southern rock has ever had, whilst simultaneously staying uplifting and modern. Keeping things on a much smaller scale than most bands, their records are "family" efforts, and the band has similarly stayed with smaller recording labels. Bursting onto the music scene with a scorching debut, their 1999 album, Shake Hands With Shorty is nothing short of fantastic.

The members of North Mississippi Allstars have certainly earned the title, and while fantastic in their own right and as a group, all three members were also part of the superstar group, The Word, along with Robert Randolph and John Medeski. Shake Hands With Shorty is very much a "family affair," beginning with band founders and brothers, Cody and Luther Dickinson. Garry and Dewayne Burnside (sons of country legend R.L. Burnside) also contribute to the album, and Garry was a "formal" member of the band for some time. Aside from that, most of the guest musicians, and staff who worked on the album were friends of band members. This comes through in the music, and the album has a very strong "down home" and "family" vibe throughout. In the sense that there were very few "professionals" working on the album, it is very non-traditional, yet the music is a blissful style of southern based blues-rock. Shake Hands With Shorty also received a Grammy nomination for "Best Contemporary Blues Album," and many of their subsequent albums have received the same honor.

Musically, Shake Hands With Shorty runs the gamut from rocking barn-burners to bright blues numbers to simple, traditional acoustic songs. This is where the wide range of influences can be heard, and the group puts a fantastic, original spin on each style. Luther Dickinson is absolutely brilliant throughout the record, switching between electric and acoustic guitar, as well as playing a blistering pedal steel, and even a bottleneck guitar. Luther also served as the primary producer for Shake Hands With Shorty and has filled a similar capacity on their later albums. Brother Cody Dickinson also plays guitar at times on the record, but it is he who is responsible for the sensational drumming throughout the album. Finding a perfect balance between rock and blues (and there is even an occasional punk feel), the drums are simply flawless on each and every track. Bassman, Chris Chew has the ability to create grooves the likes of which have not been heard in decades. Sliding all over the fretboard, there are times when Chew pushes the bass to the front of the music, giving the album great musical depth. The mixture of southern rock and blues, topped with an undeniable gospel mood make Shake Hands With Shorty one of the most musically diverse and enjoyable records of its time.

It is in the vocals of the North Mississippi Allstars that the soul and gospel influence of their music can clearly be heard. Along with guitar, Luther Dickinson handles a vast majority of the vocal work, and his gritty, yet mesmerizing voice is the perfect compliment to the music. Using a more traditional blues-based delivery, Dickinson adds a bit of "badass" to the sound, and his vocals are definitely more of a "rebellious" blues than the sound of the more traditional blues singers. Whether he is singing quietly with a lone guitar or going full force against the wall of sound behind him, Luther's voice never fails to convey the mood of each song without fault. When it comes to the lyrical content, Shake Hands With Shorty is as traditional blues as you'll find anywhere. Songs like "Drinkin' Muddy Water" and "Drop Down Mama" could have easily been written and performed in the 1940's, yet the bands' take on them give them an undeniably modern feel. The North Mississippi Allstars even put their own take on one of the most infamous musical characters ever, with their tune, "K.C. Jones (On The Road Again)." The traditional lyrics with the distinct voice of Luther Dickinson present a wonderful juxtaposition in sound that makes Shake Hands With Shorty a truly enjoyable album to experience.

The term "modern blues" is almost an oxymoron, as the issues faced today are such a far cry from the foundations of blues, that it is almost a completely different beast. Pulling from the roots of the blues genre, the North Mississippi Allstars stay true to the core of the genre, whilst putting a modern spin and mood on the sound. Infusing elements from the southern rock of the 1970's, as well as the gospel music of their upbringing, they create a phenomenal musical melting pot that continues to make them one of the most original and enjoyable bands in music. With only three members, each person in the band plays a variety of instruments and lends vocals, solidifying the "family" vibe that runs throughout each of their songs and albums. At the front of this is guitar virtuoso Luther Dickinson, whose vocals give each song the perfect finishing touch. Each record from the North Mississippi Allstars is well worth owning, yet the energy and purity of their debut album, 1999's Shake Hands With Shorty makes it slightly better than the rest, and continues to be a glorious musical experience with each and every listening.

Standout tracks: "Shake 'Em On Down," "Po Black Maddie," and "Station Blues."

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