Blues ambassador Luther Dickinson plays Crystal Bay
When he started his musical playing days, guitarist Luther Dickinson learned from some of the greats of the Hill Country Blues, and ended up backing many of them up while they approached a wider audience than southern states.
Now, Dickinson has found the shoe on the other foot as he meets younger musicians while still trekking out with his North Mississippi All Stars.
“I’m meeting more and more guitar players that are asking me for help, to teach them and to pass things on to them,” Dickinson said. “Roots music is like carpentry or being a chef, just like any trade you can study. But, when you learn it hand-to-hand, from experience, even just watching it ... that’s when the craft is really handed down. Face-to-face.”
Tahoe audiences will once again see the blues/rock/country craftsmanship from Luther and his brother, drummer Cody Dickinson, as the Allstars return to Crystal Bay Club. The band is joined by San Francisco funk group the Monophonics on Dec. 30 and by jazz musician John Medeski and roots-rocker Marc Broussard.
Dickinson said that Medeski and Broussard will probably oin the band for some songs for the Allstars’ New Years Eve set. The Dickinsons are also being joined by bassist Danielle Nicole for these Allstars shows.
“She’s one of my favorite singers and just a great bass player,” Dickinson said. “And if everything works as planned, we hope to have John Medeski play with us. He’s an old friend of ours.”
For his part, Dickinson said he’s always loved playing at Crystal Bay Club and will enjoy spending a New Year’s Eve there.
“It’s always a cool celebration on that day,” he said. “But, we can’t let the pressure get to us. It’s still all about the music and creating your moment with the music and the audience. “
Shaking them on down
The Allstars first got on the national radar in 1996, the year they formed. With Luther on guitar and Cody on drums and keyboards, the group made a name for itself by playing a specific style of blues, the rougher and less slick variant known as Hill Country Blues, born in Mississippi. The brothers worked extensively with Mississippi players such as R.L. Burnside and Junior Kimbrough early in their musical careers.
Luther Dickinson said the experience he gained from his father, famous record producer Jim Dickinson, was like studying with the masters of the blues.
“I definitely had that experience and was exposed to it, but then in the ’90s the blues got modernized and electrified right in my backyard,” he said. “I was playing with musical families three generations deep. It was that loud, psychedelic, moonshine-fueled modern electric blues and it blew my mind.
“The interpretations could be wildly different from one night to another. So, it was really thrilling and life-changing for us to be exposed to that, to be a part of a community and be embraced by them. They played at a juke joint dive and we had a studio, so there were some really good parties in those days.”
The Allstars’ first album, “Shake Hands with Shorty,” earned critical acclaim and a Grammy nomination in 2000. For the next eight years, the Dickinsons recorded five albums and extensively toured the U.S., gaining a reputation for their raucous live shows. Their best known songs include “Shake ‘Em on Down,” “Station Blues,” “My Babe” and “Sugartown.”
In 2008, Luther and Cody Dickinson decided to pursue some other projects. Cody worked in acting and soundtracks, while Luther’s work included time toward the end of the Black Crowes’ careers as their guitarist; formation of the South Memphis String Band with jazz/blues/roots musicians Alvin Youngblood Hart and Jimbo Mathus; and a folk band called the Wandering. He also released several solo albums that showcased his acoustic guitar playing.
“I just look at it as another page,” Luther Dickinson said of his more acoustic-based side projects and solo work. “It’s just a natural thing for guitar players, people who play and write on guitar, to go back and forth from acoustic to electric. It’s just the natural yin and yang of the two instruments. Acoustic and electric are different beasts.”
Building blues bridges
Soon enough, though the electric beast called back, as the Allstars got back together in 2010. Since then, Luther and Cody have split time between their other projects and the duo where it all started.
“We have a new Allstars record for next year and that’s our main focus, so I think we’ll release that in the spring,” Luther Dickinson said.
He added that he is also working on albums for two acts from St. Louis: Rev. Sekou and The Holy Ghost, a gospel/soul group that also blends in modern social issues and activism; and Samantha Fish, a blues-rock guitarist and singer.
As for the new Allstars, expect a bridge between its most recent and earliest material.
“It will be a really great follow-up to ‘World Boogie Is Coming’ (released in 2013), and is really like a perfect follow-up to our first record. You can put those two and this new record together as a trilogy. We’ve just really figured out what we do best and have hit our stride. And, it’s live that we strive for. That’s just the type of band we are.
“We grew up trying to make records in the more traditional studio way. More and more, we’ve had different avenues, solo records, to explore and experiment and it makes us realize that the proper way to explore is what makes us the Allstars. It’s what we are good at.”
As a kind of ambassador for his type of blues, Dickinson said he feels like he still has much to learn about the style and how it is played.
“The cool thing about it is that our generation in country blues hasn’t come into its own yet. If you think about, Otha (Turner) and R.L. (Burnside) and Junior (Kimborough) didn’t take off into they were in their 70s. I’m not wishing us the same fate as our friends, but I think that they, and we as a collective, still have a lot to offer.
“The older you get, the more it just becomes a part of your bones, and it’s deeper in you and you can focus on the aspects you want to focus on. To me, there are two sides to what I do: there’s the creative, writing songs, and then there is putting together bands and improvising. But it also turns on protecting and also expanding the repertoire. It can be a country/electronic remix, but the melody and the lyrics are what I’m interested in keeping alive, because it’s classic and from the South. It’s the vernacular we all use.”