(Songs of the South Records)
“Take reassurance in the glory of the moment and the forever promise of tomorrow. Surely there is light beyond the darkness. As there is dawn after the night.”
In the spring of 2010, the North Mississippi Allstars entered their father, Jim’s, Zebra Ranch Studio to record these 12 songs. Keys To The Kingdom, arguably, contends as the Allstars’ strongest and most versatile collection of material. Even though their father passed away in August of 2009, Luther & Cody Dickinson still listed him with production credit.
Keith Richards wrote about Jim Dickinson in his recent book, Life: “Dickinson was a beautiful piano player. Probably at the time I did take him for a country player, just because he was a southern guy. I found out later he was far more wide-ranging…”
Keys To The Kingdom counts as the first North Mississippi Allstars studio album in two years. The legacy of Jim Dickinson emanates from these glorious sessions. Musical guests on this disc include Mavis Staples, Ry Cooder, Spooner Oldham, Alvin Youngblood Hart, Gordie Johnson and Jack Ashford.
The album notes reveal musical intent: “Keys To the Kingdom is a song cycle, a celebratory declaration of life in the face of death as well as a musical interpretation of the Dickinson family’s recent experience with the life cycle, written and recorded honestly, fast and raw. There are moments of rock-n-roll rebellion, and sexified blues, but the heart of the record reflects the journey that traverses through the mirrored gates of life and death.”
Luther & Cody remained busy these last two years, collectively playing in The Black Crowes, The Sons of Mudboy, Hill Country Revue and South Memphis String Band. Keys To The Kingdom reveal the excellent musicianship this family exudes, and they only continue to amaze. All 12 compositions are originals, except Bob Dylan’s “Stuck Inside of Mobile with the Memphis Blues Again”.
“This A’Way” opens Keys to The Kingdom, and conjures a gritty Big Star-meets-the Stones swagger. “Jumpercable Blues”, a mean-ass ditty, evokes juke joint voodoo at the crossroads. On “The Meeting”, the soul-soaked voice of Mavis Staples graces this timeless amped-up blues gem.
“How I Wish My Train Would Come” revisits Jim Dickinson’s Pleased To Meet Me days with The Replacements in the way the Allstars nail a ramshackle-swing. “Hear The Hills” features Jim Dickinson’s favorite keyboardist, Spooner Oldham. Luther's lyrics capture the essence of this recording:
I can hear the hills callin' out my name
Goin' up to Heaven for to stake my claim.
Call me by thunder, call me by whisperin' pine.
I've seen the proof of God and I don't mind dyin'
Luther explained how his father inspired the cover of Dylan’s “Stuck Inside Mobile”: “One night, while in the hospital, dad had the great idea that ‘Stuck Inside’ could be done as a one-chord hill country blues song. He couldn’t talk so he wrote it down on a piece of paper and handed the idea to me. I promised him that we would do it.”
“Let It Roll” exists as an electrified-gutbucket re-working of the tune Luther wrote three days after his father died and recorded on The Sons of Mudboy album. “Ain’t No Grave” includes Jim Dickinson’s old friend and collaborator Ry Cooder on guitar. This heart-rending family song emits a golden web of purity. “Ol’ Cannonball”, an acoustic string band number, features the mighty Alvin Youngblood Hart singing and playing harmonica in a wash of cosmic Appalachia.
“New Orleans Walkin’ Dead”, a hypnotic two-minute-and-thirty second tune, stands as a “humorous zombie rock take on resurrection.” “Ain’t None of Mine” was inspired by “Otha Turner’s lusty tales of old-time, late-night country courtship and provides a necessary aspect of the cycle of life—sex.” This tune evokes the old Hill Country sounds the Brothers Dickinson always loved.
“Jellyrollin’ All Over Heaven” ends Keys To the Kingdom with a lighthearted blues tribute to old Memphis heroes such as Furry Lewis, Lee Baker and Charlie Freeman. Spooner Oldham’s ‘angelic’ piano exists as the last notes we hear. Luther Dickinson said of Keys To the Kingdom: “In the end, we recorded our best country blues and Mississippi rock-n-roll record yet—as if our lives depended on it.”
I agree. Hands down, Keys to the Kingdom unlock one of the best releases of 2011...