North Mississippi Allstars keep it raw, original
September 15, 2005
Here are reviews of new CDs by bands on the fall schedule at Aspen’s Belly Up nightclub.North Mississippi Allstars, “Electric Blue Watermelon”produced by Jim Dickinson (ATO Records)Here’s what advice I would have offered the North Mississippi Allstars: Combine the raw blues-rock of their first two CDs with the songwriting, vocalizing and production of the more pop-flavored 2003 CD, “Polaris.” Only they never asked.They didn’t need to. With Jim Dickinson, the well-known Memphis producer and father of Allstars Cody and Luther Dickinson, back behind the boards, the trio seems to have had the same idea I did. “Electric Blue Watermelon” is the Allstars’ best effort yet, as rowdy and rocking as their 2000 debut “Shake Hands With Shorty,” and with much of the songwriting ambition and originality as “Polaris.”The Allstars then came up with something I hadn’t thought of, but wish I had. The Dickinson brothers have long proclaimed, in words and music, their appreciation for being raised in the bosom of black American culture. On “Electric Blue Watermelon,” they make this link between two white young men and the sound of the black South that has been the focus of their lives stronger than ever.”No Mo” is a blues meditation on race in America, with Luther – a white guy who has always celebrated the integrated community in which he was raised – using a scary-deep voice to lament what the white man has done to the South and its culture. “Teasin’ Brown” seems a reference to an Afro hairdo, and “Stompin’ My Foot,” perhaps the most successful merging of raw blues and sleek funk, borrows all sorts of black language and sounds. Throughout the album, the Allstars cover music of their heroes – the late Otha Turner, Charley Patton, Odetta, black musicians all – stamped with the band’s rock ‘n’ roll attitude.
If “No Mo” is the highlight of the serious side of “Electric Blue Watermelon,” “Hurry Up Sunshine” is the flip-side high point. A peppy duet with Lucinda Williams, the song is an invitation for the future to arrive. Others on the guest list include steel guitarist Robert Randolph, the Dirty Dozen Brass Band and rapper Al Kapone.The North Mississippi Allstars play the Belly Up on Oct. 6.Soulive, “Break Out”produced by Eric Krasno & Soulive(Concord)New York instrumental trio Soulive has been edging closer and closer from jazz-funk to soul, and on “Break Out,” their debut for the Concord label, they tumble full body into the soul sound. But it is very much their own kind of soul, with influences of hip-hop and modern groove-jazz liberally employed.Naturally, to do soul right, you need singers, and Soulive breaks out the guest vocalists here: Ivan Neville on the New Orleans-feelin’ “Got Soul”; Reggie Watts of Maktub on the ballad “What Can You Do”; and Chaka Khan on the thumping “Back Again.” As much as singers, horns are required, and the Soulive Horns – trumpeter Rashawn Ross and saxophonist Ryan Zoidis – are a significant presence. And just to make the soul train run a little longer, saxophonist Cochema Gastelum is on board for “Glad to Know Ya,” two trombonists come along for the ride, and Robert Randolph blows steam on a cover of Hendrix’s “Crosstown Traffic.”
But even if the vocals and horns were stripped away, “Break Out” would still overflow with soul on the rhythms of brothers Alan and Neal Evans (drummer and keyboardist, respectively) and the sweet guitar of Eric Krasno.Soulive plays the Belly Up on Oct. 8.Sharon Jones & the Dap-Kings, “Naturally”(Daptone Records)While Soulive brings soul up to date, singer Sharon Jones is happy to let the style live in its ’60s heyday. On her second album, the former Rikers Island prison guard seems to be channeling James Brown, with whom she shares a hometown of Augusta, Ga. Backed by eight-piece Dap-Kings, who show a similar reverence for proto-soul, Jones opens up and belts out song after song about the hassles and hopes of romance.The tenacious devotion to early soul runs through the horn arrangements, Jones’ voice and the cover design, whose images and style could have come from 1966. The song list is even divided into “Side One” and “Side Two.” The only deviation from the original is the choice of a cover tune. But the version of “This Land Is Your Land” here bears no resemblance to Woody Guthrie’s original, or any of the numerous remakes that have followed.The unearthing of an old sound, though, is surprisingly fresh. “Naturally” could easily pass for the genuine vintage article.
Sharon Jones & the Dap-Kings make their Aspen debut Wednesday, Sept. 21, with New Orleans r&b singer/guitarist Eric Lindell opening.Burning Spear, “Our Music”(Burning Spear)”Our music/they think that we lose it,” sings Burning Spear on the opening title track to his 25th-or-so album in a 35-year career. The idea of “losing the music” could be a reference to the actual ownership of the music; Spear formed his own Burning Spear label beginning with 2003’s “Freeman” to ensure control over his product. It also could be a reference to the fact that reggae has progressed from a humble style used for spiritual purposes to a global phenomenon, morphing along the way into heavily produced dancehall, the pop stylings of Maxi Priest, fodder for Eric Clapton and Willie Nelson, and, in its latest form, reggaeton, a Hispanicized reggae-dance hybrid coming out of Puerto Rico.Or, it could be a defiant reminder that Burning Spear – born Winston Rodney 57 years ago, in St. Ann’s Bay, the same Jamaican village that produced Bob Marley – is, more than any other reggae singer, making the same music, for the same ends, as he was at reggae’s birth. Spear has been remarkably consistent in his art, making roots reggae that stands as a statement against slick, commercial music. And yet, in his insistence on simplicity, and making the music very much about the message – freedom, community, persistence, Afrocentrism – Spear keeps making tuneful CDs. “Our Music” rolls along on Spear’s repeated lyrical phrases, bouncing rhythms, and tightly arranged horns, guitars and backing female vocals. Spear hasn’t lost anything, most especially his music.Burning Spear plays Sept. 25 at Belly Up.Stewart Oksenhorn’s e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org