North Mississippi Allstars

51 Phantom (Tone-Cool)

"I'm in the mud and the mud's in me."

So sings North Mississippi Allstars front man Luther Dickinson near the end of the Allstars' sophomore album, 51 Phantom.On the one hand, it's a declaration of loyalty to the band's Mississippi Hill Country roots, but it's also an explanation of what makes this band special.

The history of rock is filled with white boys sporting big amps, trying to take the blues into high-decibel territory. For every inspired success (Led Zeppelin) you could probably name a dozen interchangeable, bombastic oafs (listened to any Pat Travers lately?).

Like their most obvious model, the early Allman Brothers, but unlike most hard-rock bluesmen, the Allstars didn't have to learn the ropes by studying records. It was in the air, in the nearby juke joints, and, yeah, in the mud of their native South. Luther Dickinson and his drumming brother Cody sound like exactly what they are -- two brothers who've been playing together since they were in grade school, and have a telepathic understanding of each other's moves. And their dad, legendary producer/session man Jim Dickinson, helmed this record with the same aesthetic he's brought to all his best productions (The Replacements' Pleased to Meet Me, Big Star's Sister Lovers): simply create an environment where musicians feel loose and free enough to stamp their personalities on the performances.

Though the entire trio is solid, the star of the band is clearly Luther. A monumentally gifted guitarist, he's to Duane Allman what Stevie Ray Vaughan was to Jimi Hendrix: an earnest disciple who's thoroughly absorbed his mentor's style and added enough regional wrinkles of his own to create a fresh new guitar-hero vocabulary.

One snag is that Luther's not much of a singer. As a vocalist, he's kind of in the young Keith Richards mold: a natural sense of phrasing and a spirit that's willing, but thin, raspy pipes that won't cooperate. And although Luther and Cody have made great strides from their clunky, early '90s teen metal band, DDT, they're still not any great shakes as songwriters, either.

Whether it's the tube-steak boogie madness of "Snakes in My Bushes," or the gospel funk of "Ship," the tracks feel more like excuses for Luther to take off on one of his fluid solos than fully realized, original songs. It's little wonder, then, that the only two covers on the record -- Pops Staples' "Freedom Highway" and Junior Kimbrough's "Lord Have Mercy" -- are both among 51 Phantom's highlights. But even if these guys don't yet have any classics of their own to add to the blues-rock canon, they're still plying the form with more verve than just about anybody out there right now.

 
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