North Mississippi Allstars – Set Sail: Album Review

North Mississippi Allstars – Set Sail This album appealed to me from the get-go having lived in the Mississippi hill country when I was 17. It’s a rolling landscape of pine trees, occasional cotton fields, muddy slow-moving rivers and tangles of kudzu vines. And a fraught history. The North Mississippi Allstars invoke this country in an engaging set of ten songs.

North Mississippi AllstarsThe tradition they build on, North Mississippi hill country blues is a regional style. As someone wisely said, it maybe the blues but not the sort Muddy Waters took from the Delta to Chicago. Rather, it’s a style that features guitars riffs, repetitive and fewer-than-usual chords  and definite sense of “groove”. Somewhere in the thick of all that are sounds of west Africa brought to the plantations generations ago by African slaves.

The Allstars are from De Soto county on the northwest border of the state. They were formed in 1996 by brothers Luther and Cody Dickinson, aiming to blend blues and bluegrass with other contemporary genres. Personnel have changed but the brothers remain. A host of Grammy and other award nominations have followed. Along the way, members have included Duwayne Burnside, son of the legendary R L Burnside and guests such as Lucinda Williams.

The album opener is Set Sail. We hear lines like ““Still fighting he fight/ we’re not giving up yet/We shall set sail, but we shall prevail”. Stirring stuff invoking struggle and perseverance; echoes of the civil right movement perhaps. A chant to inspire tenacity.

Next up is Bumping (“We’re all bumping all together…we all need love/ no one needs to be doing without”. With its funky suggestiveness there’s a distinct sense this is about more than bumping into people on the street.

This band has connections with the Black Keys and in See the Moon this feels very evident.  On Outside, a driving beat with brooding guitar overlay a narrative of laying a father to rest while a daughter is in her Sunday best. Tragedy and strained emotion set to hauntingly beautiful sounds. This is, after all, the blues.

Joy is closer to the surface on Didn’t we have a Time in which, to quivering guitar sounds, ‘‘our friendship will transcend/we’ll ride again my friend, I believe we end only to begin”. Is this a narrative about a break-up? Or about someone who’s died. I was left guessing, and that’s no bad thing. Who needs bland and obvious lyrics when these melodies are so alluring?

There is a soul revue sound Never Want to Be Kissed and after a reprise of the opener Set Sail (could this reference the fateful voyages of African Americans?) we have another funky-as-expected song given a title like Juicy Juice.

Guest vocalist Lamar Williams then returns with the swampy good-luck implication of Rabbit Foot replete with references to Southern creatures like crawfish. With a wish for an unmarked grave, the singer invokes the geography of the band’s name: “West of Alabama, south of Tennessee, east of Arkansas, bury me”. The album’s last track Authentic is something of an anthem, with ‘we don’t need to see no guns on the street’ and invoking calls for ‘justice and pace’.

These songs are varied in style and some are mysterious and intriguing – as is life in the Mississippi hill country, once home to novelist   William Faulkner and birthplace of Elvis Presley. They are all nested within a lesser-known Southern blues tradition, given hybrid vigour through the relative youth of the musicians and guests.

The North Mississippi Allstars offer infectious music for times to keep infection at bay. Take a musical journey into the hill country and enjoy the All Stars. Or even better, visit that part of the US when we can travel again.

Robin Kearns