Recording of November 2005: Electric Blue Watermelon

ATO (According To Our) Records 0026 (CD). 2005. Jim Dickinson, prod.; Roland Janes, Pete Matthews, Kevin Houston, engs. AAD? TT: 49:23
Performance ****
Sonics ****

To hear them—or at least guitarist-songwriter Luther Dickinson—tell it, the North Mississippi Allstars play "old-fashioned Mississippi rock and roll," a description revised a sentence later in their official bio to "loud psychedelic southern folk rock blues."

Truth is, the NMA have always done what feels right. Once they seemed to be more a Memphisized knob on the jam-band amoeba than anything else, but time has shown that there's more to their story.

On one hand, if you see them live, they do take on some of the less tiresome characteristics of jam bands like Phish or Widespread Panic, crossed with distinct nods to the booty-shakin' grooves of instrumental funk outfits like The Meters. On record, and in some parts of their live shows, they're also a blues-rock power trio in the mold of Cream or label mates Gov't Mule. I've heard them called Stevie Ray Vaughan's band with Duane Allman instead of the bolero-hatted one.

Their first album, Shake Hands With Shorty, and its studio follow-ups, Phantom 51 and Polaris, were fun. But it always seemed as if the band's chosen turf—for lack of a more precise term, the blues-rock jam trio—would eventually prove one-dimensional and limiting. But here, on their sixth record in five years, they've made what is their most mature and coherent artistic statement so far.

Following in the footsteps of their famous father, Memphis producer Jim Dickinson (Replacements, Alex Chilton; as a player, Rolling Stones and Ry Cooder), the NMA (with Cody Dickinson, drums and Chris Chew, bass) keeps things elemental no matter which way they're leaning musically: guitar tones raw, drums loud and forward, bass guitar low-down and funky. A convincing greasiness continues to pervade their rootsy grooves. That kind of mud-and-guts approach makes these guys real, and real ballsy.

The NMA's raunch and roll (to borrow a term from Black Oak Arkansas, a band with which they share some mojo) is on full display in "Bang Bang Lulu," a traditional tune to which Jim Dickinson added lyrics and, I suspect, an arrangement. It's what they do best: straight-ahead blues-rock peppered with Luther's slide-guitar work, which remains the band's most intriguing and interesting musical feature.

Recorded over the past year whenever inspiration struck them, at well-known studios like Sam Phillips (Sun) studio and Ardent, Electric Blue Watermelon has a remarkably consistent, well-balanced sound, with a weighty low end and surprisingly detailed textures throughout. One of the engineers was the great Roland Janes, who in the late 1950s and early '60s was a guitarist in the Sun Studios house band, where he played on the hit records of Jerry Lee Lewis, among others.

While the album's title may conjure up visions of late-'60s psychedelia, what NMA had in mind was something much different, and much closer to their Mississippi roots. The music and/or lyrics of seven of this record's 11 tunes were written by the late Otha Turner. Bursting from the Mississippi backwoods in 1998 with the album Everybody Hollerin' Goat—produced, not coincidentally, by Luther Dickinson—Turner was the object of much music-world buzz as the most visible link to the heretofore obscure Mississippi Hill Country tradition of the fife-and-drum band. An offshoot of the African-American spiritual tradition, fife-and-drum's day in the sun finally dawned in 2002, when a tune of Turner's, "Shimmy She Wobble," appeared on the soundtrack of Martin Scorsese's Gangs of New York. After making a second record, recorded with Senegalese kora player Morikeba Kouyate, Turner died in February 2003, at the age of 94.

Electric Blue Watermelon's psychedelia comes from Turner's simple, often chant-like lyrics, whose otherworldly language is full of expressions only Turner could translate: "I just want to get hairy / With that Teasin' Brown" (from "Teasin' Brown"). The NMA has previously recorded plenty of blues covers, from a batch of Mississippi Fred McDowell tunes on Shake Hands with Shorty to the smoking rip through Charlie Patton's "Mississippi Bollweevil" that opens EBW—and Turner himself was a guest on most of the band's earlier albums. But the presence of his weird lyrics and often stark music on EBW are part of what makes this album the NMA's best so far.

In fact, two tunes by Turner are Electric Blue Watermelon's greatest successes. "Hurry Up Sunrise," with duet guest vocals from Lucinda Williams and an inspired Dickie Betts–Duane Allman guitar figure in its fadeout, is this gutsy record's "pop" tune. And Luther Dickinson's guitar dives into a long, convincing workout on Turner's evocative "Mean Ol' Wind Died Down," which is also the best jam on EBW.

Turner's chosen vehicle of expression, the fife-and-drum trio, reappears here without him on the album's final tune, "Bounce Ball," which closes with an extended stretch of crickets chirping away under what sounds like a Mississippi summer night. At a time when rock music has gone in a number of less than genuine directions, the North Mississippi Allstars seem thankfully and convincingly headed the other way.—Robert Baird