On this night at the Roxy Theatre, the guitar was king. The six-string summit began early at the famous Sunset Strip venue; the house still filling in as Duane Betts and his Pistoleers took the stage a few minutes past eight o’clock. Tearing into the Rolling Stones nugget, “Silver Train,” Betts and his fellow axe man Johnny Stachela established the proverbial and literal tone right from the drop; blistering guitars and cranked-up amps. Plenty of jams rumbled through the half-hour set, with Stachela shining on slide and Betts driving sweetly melodic through his original “Taking Time,” then as the two paired up for a beautiful rendition of Betts’ father Dickey’s “Blue Sky.” Yet, this was but the thunder before the lightning.
The curtain parted on the North Mississippi Allstars with just the sibling duo of Luther and Cody Dickinson, on guitar and drums respectively, onstage. Luther, working both fretboard and keyboard through a crunching opener that left him with a broken string, seemed positively possessed by the spirit. Cody hammered away behind the kit, then motioned for bassist Dominic Davis (Jack White) to join them. The trio funked up “Deep Elem Blues” as Cody did triple-time, holding the beat with the left hand, belting out the vocal, and playing keyboard with the right.
It’s fair to say North Mississippi Allstars, on tour in support of their chart-topping Prayer for Peace, are more than just the keepers of the history of the blues, and that’s saying a lot. The genre, since a decade-long resurgence 30 years ago on the backs of Stevie Ray Vaughan, Robert Cray, and The Allman Brothers Band, has been harder to find in the mainstream these days. The brothers Dickinson not only have excavated deeply into the roots of the music, exposing folk blues legends like Bukka White and R.L. Burnside to the broader audience, but have managed to tie that to the electric revolution of Jimi Hendrix and, even, Black Flag in a contemporary fury.
A North Mississippi Allstars performance is, arguably, two-and-a-half hours of performance art. The two masterfully multi-talented multi-instrumentalists are currents of energy, open and flowing, calling out to the Los Angeles crowd, namechecking heroes, and powering through Hendrix’ “Hear My Train A Comin’” and a version of “The Train I Ride,” that bridges Mississippi Fred McDowell and Elvis Presley equally. They change places- Cody moving to guitar, Luther to drums, then both on guitar as Davis anchors bass and drums- in a show of musical dexterity that is anything but novelty. These are serious students whose studies have been intense and ingrained since birth.
They welcomed a guest from St. Louis, the dapper-dressed Reverend Sekou, for “Loving You is Killing Me,” and after closing with “Shake What Your Mama Gave You,” ushered on another, Lucinda Williams, for more Mississippi Fred on an encore of “You Gotta Move.” Next, Betts was invited back to sear the shuffling “All Night Long,” from the band’s 2000 debut Shake Hands with Shorty, that morphed into a rolling tribute to recently fallen friends and mentors, Butch Trucks, Col. Bruce Hampton, and Gregg Allman, with “Turn On Your Love Light.” Then, with Betts on a finale of fiery fret work igniting the Dickey-penned Allman Brothers Band instrumental opus “In Memory of Elizabeth Reed,” provided a momentous reiteration of the guitar as king.