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North Mississippi Allstars – Polaris

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As stated in an earlier review, I loved the North Mississippi Allstars’ first CD, released in 2000, Shake Hands With Shorty:

    the young trio of brothers Luther Dickinson (raging slide guitars and vocals) and Cody Dickinson (drums and vocals) – sons of the great producer Jim Dickinson – and friend Chris Chew (bass and vocals), rocks as hard as anything out of Seattle or Minneapolis, but with the pure, authentic roots of the Mississippi Delta blues, proving once again that the blues spring eternal from that fertile Delta.

    The Dickinsons grew up in the recording studio with their father, helping in the studio while their father produced the Replacements, Beck, and Mojo Nixon among many others.

    ….The brothers toured with crusty Mississippi blues rockers T-Model Ford and R.L. Burnside, then decided to get serious and formed the Allstars with former schoolmate Chew on bass.

    ….The songs on Shake Hands With Shorty were written by legendary Mississippi bluesmen living and dead, including Mississippi Fred McDowell, R.L.Burnside, Furry Lewis, and Junior Kimbrough. What they do with these jukejoint classics is whip and puree them through a high energy blender, and what pours out is rootsy but utterly modern, soulful and very real. Amazing.

The last paragraph holds the key to their second release, 51 Phantom, on which they tried to make the move from essentially a brilliant cover band to writing and recording their own songs, and while I admired the effort, the results were spotty.

On their third album, Polaris, the Allstars – now a quartet with the addition of Duwayne Burnside (R.L.’s son) on guitar and vocals – make great strides as songwriters, and take some surprising turns moving their music away from revved Delta neo-blues into a pan-Southern sound incorporating elements of folk-rock, country-rock, swamp-rock and even psychedelia into the mix.

Polaris begins with “Eyes,” which in its riffy opening is closest to the band’s old sound. But “Eyes” quickly veers into a sweetly melodic, soulful, climbing call-and-response group vocal more like mid-Doobie Brothers than the Allmans, spiced with a swooping slide lead from Luther and some fine piano tinkling (very Michael McDonald/Chuck Leavell) from Cody – a brilliant start.

Interestingly, Junior Kimbrough’s “Meet Me In the City” and Earl King’s “Time For the Sun to Shine” (’60s L.A. folk-psychedelia), the only non-originals on the disc, are actually its weakest tracks.

“Conan” highlights tasty acoustic guitar picking interplay (a la Allman’s “Little Martha”) and rootsy harmony vocals interspersed with quick two-step interludes and jammy fantasias – more goodness.

“All Along” sounds like a great Climax Blues Band song, with the low, moody vocals doubled by slide and acoustic guitar; the later Replacements or Westerberg solo would have killed to record “Kids These Days”; “Never In All My Days” is a tight choogling boogie; and “Bad Bad Pain” is blessed with Little Feat funkiness (and even Paul Barrere-like vocals).

Polaris burbles along very strongly before slightly running out of steam toward the end – an exceptionally encouraging leap forward for a very fine band.

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