'51 Phantom' a triumphant Allstar achievement

by Sam Lederer | 1/4/02 6:00am

The North Mississippi Allstars burst onto the music scene with their 2000 debut album, "Shake Hands With Shorty." A collection of blues cover material from such notables like R.L. Burnside and Junior Kimbrough, the album represented the young blues based trio of Luther and Cody Dickinson and Chris Chew very well.

But, in a more explorative and bold move, the band recently released their second effort, "51 Phantom," which offers nine original songs.

The brothers Dickinson, sons of the legendary producer Jim Dickinson, formed the North Mississippi Allstars in 1996. After performing in a few unsuccessful bands, Luther and Cody turned to blues, and the Allstars were formed with the addition of Chew on bass. The group soon became a staple of Southern blues festivals. But with their sophomore album, the North Mississippi Allstars have broken the mold cast by their inaugural release.

In a step toward maturity, the album is comprised mainly of original material with two energetic covers of "Lord Have Mercy" by Junior Kimbrough and Roebuck Staples' "Freedom Highway." The album demonstrates the band's prowess not only as students of the school of blues but also their ability to incorporate many different musical genres.

The title track begins the album by showcasing the band's harmony as a group and some of their blues roots. This unity is continued into the next track, "Snake in My Bushes." Catchy hooks characterize this hard rock tune that displays Luther's skill as a guitarist. The Allman Brothers' influence can be heard in the high-pitched solo midway through the song.

The guitar lines on "Sugartown" sound very similar to those of "Skinny Woman," a track off the band's debut album. However, by adding Hendrix like distortion, the band does not sound repetitive.

The gospel-laden "Lord Have Mercy" shows another side of the band that could not have been expected by audiences. The unity of Dickinson's solos is preserved by Chew's cool bass and the rhythm created by Cody's drumming.

Cody also holds together the next track, "Storm." Luther's cascading guitar licks on the song mirror the sound of rain and his floating chords contain a hint of the Beatles in their Sgt. Pepper days.

"Freedom Highway," with its powerful message of equality and peace, offers a more socially conscious view of the band. Demonstrating both their skill as musicians and songwriters, the three-minute punch of soul power echoes an equal-rights march right out of the 1970s. Perhaps a commentary on their musical direction, the band proclaims, "I've made up my mind, and I won't turn around."

Showing yet another facet of the band's musical talents, the jam-band tune "Ship" ranks as the album's best song. Conjuring up comparisons to other contemporaries like Widespread Panic and String Cheese Incident, the track features a more flowing guitar solo by Luther Dickinson. The track sounds as though it is a blues standard spiced up by Luther's imagination.

The last three tracks on the "51 Phantom" represent the band's most imaginative attempt at augmenting their blues core with new sounds.

The mid-tempo songs "Leavin'" and "Up Over Yonder" display the band at their experimental peak. With influences ranging from Caribbean to pop to gospel, the two tracks show the band's commitment to their music, no matter the direction in which it might lead them. Hints of the folk and blues virtuoso Taj Mahal can be heard in the guitar lines on "Leavin'."

The album's final song, "Mud," serves as a harder-edged presentation of the band's autobiography. "Memphis, Tennessee is where I was born. Mississippi is where I was grown," exclaims Luther with punk and heavy metal sounds screaming in the background. It is fitting that this track serves as a history of the band -- just when the listener thinks the group can be categorized, a curveball that shatters any attempt at classification is thrown into the mix.

With "51 Phantom," the Allstars made a move towards the mainstream of rock culture. Altering the pure blues base of their debut, the group adds many influences that may seem disorganized and frantic. But, the trio carries itself well and, in doing so, shows that it is a force to be reckoned with, even at such an early stage in its career.