No American roots music recording in recent years possesses the explosive audacity of Shake Hands With Shorty by youthful newcomers the North Mississippi Allstars. Fronted by guitarist Luther and drummer Cody Dickinson, the sons of veteran Memphis producer Jim Dickinson, with Chris Chew on bass, this power trio has absorbed more varieties of blues, blues rock, and blues-related world music than most folks hear in a lifetime. Yet they have bitten off no more than they can chew, somehow packing a myriad of influences into a compelling music. The North Mississippi Allstars may not triumph on every effort (their version of Furry Lewis' "K.C. [sic] Jones (On the Road Again)" sounds just like the Pig- Pen era Grateful Dead, for example), but they never even threaten to bore.
Take "Po Black Maddie," one of three cuts from veteran bluesman R.L. Burnside, who has exerted an extraordinary influence on the threesome. The Allstars twist it into Ali Farka Toure meets Duane Allman and Dicky Betts. Behind Burnside's Delta lyrics, they slide from ethereal Malian guitar to rambling Georgia electric slide guitar, moving slyly into Burnside's "Skinny Woman" before returning to the African sounds whence the two tracks began.
"I don't play no rock 'n' roll," said the late Mississippi Fred McDowell upon his reemergence in the 1960s, but the North Mississippi All-Stars have no hesitancy to rock out powerfully on the four tunes of his they reprocessed into their style. The lead-off cut "Shake 'em on Down" attempts nothing less than a fusion of rock, hip-hop, electric blues and primitive proto-blues forms, and somehow pulls it off in a rollicking, joyous track, completed by sampling in the ancient African-American cane-fife playing of Otha Turner. All together, "Po Black Maddie," "Skinny Woman" and "Shake 'em on Down" suggest the high-wire walking potential of the band; the rest of the CD's cuts prove thoroughly engaging, but not as mind-bending.
Most records that cast such a wide net fail to pull it off, but the North Mississippi Allstars' music works when they stick to more or less traditional Memphis and northern Delta blues texts for their explorations. These rocking fusions come naturally to them, so at their worst the trio simply sounds too much like one influence or another (fair warning to those who hate the Dead or the Allmans). Ultimately Shake Hands With Shorty becomes a celebration of the possibilities of the music rather than a self-indulgence because the group maintains all the classic fundamentals, and thus all the mysterious power, of the blues. If these guys fully process their influences into their own style, they will create the archetype for the electric blues of the new century.