The North Mississippi Allstars (NMA), helmed by brothers Luther and Cody Dickinson, sons of famed musician and producer James Luther Dickinson, have long operated as a small loose collective, with slight changes to the lineup over their 25-year plus history. Highly decorated with four Grammy nominations, Set Sail is their twelfth studio album, and it too presents changes, rather significant ones on this outing. Jesse Williams is on bass and Lamar Williams, Jr. (no relation) shares vocals with the brothers. The latter is the son of Allman Brothers bassist Lamar Williams, Sr. Family often plays a role in anything involving the Dickinsons and in this case, the entire band is comprised of second generation musicians. Luther and Cody have a history of inviting guest musicians such as Mavis Staples and the Blind Boys of Alabama and this time they turn to another living legend, William Bell, who sings on the infectious, grooving single/video “Never Want To Be Kissed.”
While the Bell tune is a clear highlight, the other highly indelible moments feature Lamar Williams, Jr.’s vocal on the opening title track and its reprise (Part 2) midway through that’s punctuated with Luther’s signature slide guitar. These two capture the essence of the theme, second generation musicians paying tribute to their elders. Describing the song, Luther says, “‘The water may rise but we shall set sail.’ Though the flood imagery is used to illustrate perseverance when times are hard, ‘Set Sail’ is truly about my respect for the first generation American Freedom Rockers who are still with us, whose lives and music stands for open minded and open hearted freedom… We have to prove to the elders that their fight will carry on and pass through the future generations. It’s important that the younger generation knows that you have to fight for love and that battle is never-ending. Progress can feel like one step forward and two steps back but we have to press on.”
Although this band is capable of searing, incendiary sets in live performance, the album carries an understated, easy rolling groove, like their acclaimed 2019 Up and Rolling. Clearly rooted in the blues, NMA have long been crafty practitioners of melding folk, gospel, and pop into their sound. They purvey a communal feeling as the two brothers often sing in unison, and in this case, join with Lamar Williams Jr., forming a trio of voices. On “See the Moon” Lamar is singing with the band’s long-time female vocal collaborator, Sharisse Norman.
At the heart of the band sound is, of course, Luther’s versatile, one-of-a-kind guitar style, which ranges beyond his noted slide playing to include jazz and hints of psychedelia. His slide outro on the closing “Authentic” is sublime, one of his best on record. Meanwhile, Cody, known primarily as a drummer, is a multi-instrumentalist and you’ll hear him on organ underpinning Luther’s line s on that tune. It’s a raw, sometimes primitive sound that one critic dubbed “Primitive Modernism,” melding the new and the old. Few, if any bands, are as adept at marrying the pillars of Southern music – folk, soul, Hill Country blues, and gospel.
This is one of those ‘sneaky good’ albums that may not overwhelm you on the first listen, yet the grooves and hooks stick with you for days, prompting more listens, especially to the nuggets cited herein.
- Jim Hynes