photo credit: Larson Sutton
Luther Dickinson kept a music stand in front of him, bent flat, acting like a makeshift table alongside his corner cadre of amps and guitars. There were some papers on the stand- likely, the night’s setlist- but a purpose tantamount to that seemed to be as a place for the North Mississippi Allstars’ guitarist and singer to put his glasses. Luther tended to remove his specs whenever he was on the doorstep of another jam, -lest they too got lost in the swaying and rocking- and he was at that threshold a lot over the course of the Allstars’ nearly three-hour show at Venice West.
There was a decidedly different look to the now-quartet. The band was last in Los Angeles mere weeks ahead of the global pandemic shutdown in 2020, as a trio, lighting up downtown’s Teragram Ballroom. This February visit by the blues vanguards brought with it a new singer, Lamar Williams Jr., alongside Luther and sibling Cody (on drums), and bassist Jesse Williams (no relation, other than musical). The quick run of dates on the West Coast also coincided with the release of the band’s latest, Set Sail, whose tracks generously dotted a set of close to two-dozen entries.
After a brief 20-minute opening by a seated Dickinson and Williams Jr., essentially introducing Williams Jr.’s soulful voice to the Allstars faithful, the full band arrived, led by Cody’s percussive prowess, sliding into Otha Turner’s “Shimmy She Wobble,” and the ode to the Dickinson’s hill country home ground inspirations. The first new cut came early, as the four peeled off “Bumpin’,” whose gloriously bubbling jam segued into the new album’s title track. The band also dusted off and dazzled the R.L. Burnside burner, “Skinny Woman,” before the Set Sail number, “See The Moon,” in another tantalizing juxtaposition of vintage and contemporary blues.
Williams Jr. was a magnetic presence, whether singing alone or in tandem with Luther, adding a deeper nuance to a part of the Allstars’- the vocals- that sometimes played second to the ensemble’s skillful musicality. Now the voice was pushing the band, even when he wasn’t; Williams Jr. grinning and dancing, grabbing a tambourine, when Luther took flight. They brought out guitarist Johnny Stachela (Duane Betts, Allman Betts Band) for a monstrous workout on “Up and Rolling” that gave Stachela plenty of space to wield his blistering bottleneck slide, before he and Luther teamed up for a nod to The Allman Brothers Band’s “Mountain Jam.”
This was only the midpoint of a marathon show that’s become typical of NMA, and devoured by its audiences- this one packing in Venice West on a chilly Wednesday night. As a band that has always been one for keeping the blues alive while pushing it forward, with Williams Jr. and bassist Williams blending beautifully into the telekinesis of the Dickinson brothers, the North Mississippi Allstars have not only maintained an elevated standard as torchbearers for that American art form, but have risen to exalted status on the jamband mantle with performances like this one, as well. Luther and his glasses definitely need that music stand.