North Mississippi Allstars | Garage, London

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The Independent Culture

The opening seconds of North Mississippi Allstars' debut album Shake Hands With Shorty, which sounds like a scratched field-recording of country blues channelled through a Bronx hip-hop mixing desk, gives some indication of the band's streamlined contemporary approach, their ability to make songs and sounds rooted in a vanishing rural past vital in the year 2000.

The opening seconds of North Mississippi Allstars' debut album Shake Hands With Shorty, which sounds like a scratched field-recording of country blues channelled through a Bronx hip-hop mixing desk, gives some indication of the band's streamlined contemporary approach, their ability to make songs and sounds rooted in a vanishing rural past vital in the year 2000.

As the sons of Replacements and Rolling Stones production legend Jim Dickinson, the core Allstars, Cody and Luther had a head start in absorbing such music, and have played together since they were 10. Collaborations with other local second-generation, twentysomething blues children, and the addition of bassist Chris Chew (a truck driver by day) on a touring schedule that has lasted years has added to their authenticity. During their brief London stop, the virtually unknown band has packed the Garage with a crowd as young, keen and unlikely to be connected to such grizzled sounds as the band themselves.

Chris Chew is the first figure you notice, a massive black Mississippian with huge hands that hang delicately over his bass as he picks it and rolls to a private rhythm, while Luther Dickinson, skinny, small and white, ripples notes from his guitar. Chew towels sweat from his head as they create a harder, heavier, simpler sound than on record, to the satisfaction of the crowd, who turn to each other and dance, as if this really is a roadside Southern dive, and not a north London indie one.

"Freedom Rhyme" emphasises the Civil Rights cultural context their very existence as a mixed-race Southern blues band represents, and they pile the connections high. Dickinson testifies about "marching, each and every day" with Gospel repetition, before hitting high notes like black music's Seventies conscience Curtis Mayfield, while Chew's bass deepens and accelerates. A snatch of "The Saints Go Marching In" as they finish rolls them back to Louis Armstrong's New Orleans, and the birth of jazz.

Dickinson's occasional exhortations to "Shake hands with Shorty, people!", is a habit perhaps borrowed from nu-blues veteran and sometime tour-mate Jon Spencer. Passages of taped vocal are the only real indications of the contemporary edge which makes their record so special and their playing rarely hits the thrilling heights those who've heard it might expect.

In a way, this seems just another show, one more hour in one more town. But, when the eerie, alienated hilltop lament of "Station Blues" kicks quietly in, and the energised rush of "Shake 'Em On Down" follows, it's hard to complain too loudly. At such moments, they breathe enough life into this century-old pop to put Mississippi music slap back on the map.

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