The Orion Free Music Concert Series
kicked off its summer season last night with a stellar homecoming for the North Mississippi Allstars
. Now in its 11th year of free concerts at the Levitt Shell, the series has a tantalizing lineup for every Thursday–Sunday between now and July 21. And it's hard to imagine a better inaugural show than what the Allstars delivered.
One could just barely maneuver through the crowd on the fringes of the shell's seating area, so dense was the sea of humanity in attendance. Though the forecast had threatened rain, there was only the coolness of a storm that never was. And in that idyllic corner of Overton Park, Luther and Cody Dickinson, with a shifting cast of band members, gave everyone a guided technicolor tour of the region's history of rhythms and riffs.
Now, a generation after Jim Dickinson, Sid Selvidge, Lee Baker, and Jimmy Crosswaith (and many others) used their Memphis Country Blues Festivals, also at the shell, to build a bridge between the counterculture and North Mississippi blues artists, the musical hybrid they championed is an institution of sorts. The Allstars presided over a loose-limbed expression of city pride and good will from all walks of life; if Dickinson the Elder proclaimed that “world boogie is coming,” one could safely say last night that world boogie had arrived.
More than just the blues was celebrated through the set. Shardé Thomas, inheritor of her grandfather Othar Turner's legacy of fife and drum corps music, joined the band for some songs. Jimmy Crosswaith himself was on hand, bringing with him the good ol' hippy values of peace, love, and understanding, and a healthy serving of traditional folk, on both washboard and more idiosyncratic percussive inventions. Cody, for his part, took up the washboard as well, but with a tweaked approach involving his deft use of effects pedals. “It sounded like tap dancing on amphetamines... with echo!” exclaimed longtime music fan Jeff Green.
Cody's multi-instrumentalism shone during an extended drumless jam between the brothers involving fluid dual-guitar harmonies that built into a rocking crescendo. And stylistically, the band's rock and blues originals sat comfortably with their takes on old chestnuts like “Shake 'Em On Down” or “Down By the Riverside,” with the latter featuring finely layered gospel harmonies from the brothers and guest singers.
As Luther notes on the band website, “I think it’s our responsibility to the community that brought us up to protect the repertoire. To keep the repertoire alive and vibrant. That’s what folk music is about. It’s an oral history of America. My dad and his friends, they learned from Furry Lewis and Gus Cannon and Will Shade and then taught those songs to us. It’s important for us to write songs and experiment and do other things, but playing our community’s music in a modern way is what Cody and I do best. I think it’s what we were meant to do.”
The night seemed reluctant to end, with the encore extending well past the scheduled wrap-up time of 9 p.m. True lovers of music and leisure could well have simply stayed put in the grass, as it will all begin again this evening and carry on through the summer. Revel In Dimes will take the stage tonight, followed by River Whyless tomorrow and Memphis' own Talibah Safiya on Sunday. For the summer series' full schedule and details on the artists, visit the Levitt Shell events page.