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North Mississippi Allstars

North Mississippi Allstars shine on 'Polaris'

To hear Luther Dickinson tell it, "Polaris" is the CD the North Mississippi Allstars always knew they were destined to make.

But fans accustomed to the gritty, down-home rocking blues sound of the group's first two CDs, "Shake Hands With Shorty" (2000) and "51 Phantom" (2001), probably never saw something like "Polaris" coming.

That's not to say the North Mississippi Allstars have reshaped their rumbling guitar-driven sound beyond recognition on "Polaris." However, the new CD is a quantum leap forward for the group, which includes Dickinson on guitar and vocals, his younger brother Cody Dickinson on drums, keyboards, guitar and vocals, Chris Chew on bass and recent addition Duwayne Burnside on guitar and vocals.

But Luther Dickinson said as far back as 1999, the group knew the third CD would be called "Polaris," and it would present a whole new side to the Allstars' music.

"Even back then we just knew that there was going to be a time for us to try and satisfy ourselves in a different way," Dickinson recalled. "I don't know, back in '99 we knew we were going to cut 'Meet Me in the City' (a Junior Kimbrough song) and 'Time for the Sun to Rise' (an Earl King tune). We knew (we'd do) those two songs (on "Polaris"), even way back then. I don't know, we've always been fans of third records. Back then we just knew we would try to be ambitious with this one."

The expanded musical vision of the North Mississippi Allstars, who formed in 1996 and quickly displayed their love for the raw blues of such Mississippi Hill Country artists as R.L Burnside — Duwayne's father — and Kimbrough, is quickly apparent with "Polaris."

The lead track, "Eyes," sets the tone. Even though it begins with a familiar rumble, the tune quickly shifts into a sweet soul-tinged verse melody. The sound is warm and inviting, as opposed to the rough and rowdy feel of "51 Phantom" and "Shake Hands With Shorty."

As "Polaris" unfolds, the growth of the band becomes even more apparent. The cover of "Meet Me in the Studio" rolls along smoothly, echoing elements of Memphis soul and country blues. The country element is even more prominent in "Conan," a rollicking, yet delicate tune with a rolling beat and piano-accented sound.

With "Otay" and "One to Grow On" a decidedly melodic pop element emerges, as Cody Dickinson, for the first time, steps forward as a vocalist and songwriter.

"He's always been writing songs on his own and he's always had songs," Luther Dickinson said of his brother. "There were two songs while we were making '51 Phantom' that I thought he should include, but he wasn't ready ... It took him awhile to get it together before he was ready to present himself."

The direction of Cody Dickinson's songwriting was no surprise to his brother, who said his brother has always had an affinity for pop.

"Cody has a real strong melodic sense that he brought (that's) real musically rich," Luther Dickinson said. "And the Allstars, we have a history of one-chord roots rock, so it was really fun. We were trying to build some contrasts for ourselves. It was time ...''

The "Polaris" project may take the North Mississippi Allstars in new directions musically, but in one sense it gave the Dickinson brothers, in particular, a chance to reconnect with their history. Their father is the respected producer and performer Jim Dickinson — whose credits include playing piano on the Rolling Stones' song "Wild Horses" and producing albums by Ry Cooder, the Replacements, Big Star and Toots & the Maytals.

For "Polaris," the North Mississippi All-stars set up shop at Ardent Studio in Memphis, the studio their father had used on numerous projects, including the recording of the classic Replacements CD, "Pleased to Meet Me" — which included a guest guitar solo on the song "Shooting Dirty Pool" from a young Luther Dickinson.

"Definitely, it was great," Luther Dickinson said of the opportunity to record at Ardent. "We totally moved in and set up all our live gear, and moved our family and friends and crew in and partied for like a week and a half. It was great. And a lot of the record is recorded just live off the floor.

"It was just fun participating in the tradition of being at Ardent, be it Big Star that our dad participated in, or the Replacements that he produced there," he said. "Ardent has a real specific sound. We grew up listening to it, and it was a dream come true to finally get to go and participate in it ourselves. Like at one point, my dad went out and dragged up this old Ampeg amp that Alex Chilton used on Big Star 'Third.' It was just so cool. We brought it in and cranked it up, turned it up and there it was, first take, just the perfect sound I was looking for ...''

The North Mississippi Allstars play today — Feb. 12 — at Mississippi Nights, 914 N. First St. Tickets for the 8 p.m. show, which also features Brown & Burnside, cost $15.

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