Photo by Tom Bejgrowicz

North Mississippi Allstars ‘Prayer for Peace’

At the very least this is an album of covers celebrating blues, country and gospel, but at the very most it is a prayer from the stalwarts of the American blues revival urging us to keep an affinity and appreciation for songs that have already been sung.
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For over 20 years, the North Mississippi Allstars (brothers Luther and Cody Dickinson) have been giving the middle finger to conformity and rejecting trend in favour of traditional blues. Their latest album, ‘Prayer for Peace’, is new only in the sense of coming out this year, but out of this apparent unoriginality the brothers celebrate styles and make an important message.

Opener and title track ‘Prayer for Peace’ is one of the few originals, and it sounds that way. Over previous albums Cody has incorporated electronic drums and these along with Luther’s bubbling slide infuse the intro with modernity, we then get isolated vocals and gospel backing singers before a breakdown into a Seasick Steve style slide solo with touches of Hammond organ and flute. The Allstars are a band famed for ramshackle live performances and a muddy Mississippi sound, and on this album (their debut for Legacy Recordings), they try to bring these into a high quality studio setting. Here, they may pray for peace but what they produce are pieces of blues, country and gospel, all connected forming a crazy chaotic collage. It’s brilliant!

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Sadly, this ‘piecing’ together doesn’t continue into the second track. ‘Need to be Free’ may reinforce Luther’s position as guitar virtuoso, but along with ‘Bird Without a Feather’ the heavily distorted guitar and stomping drums borrows too heavily from the Black Keys. What these tracks do prove is that noise and urgency are two separate things. On their covers of R.L. Burnside’s ‘Miss Maybelle’ and ‘Long Haired Doney’ the brothers tap into the foot tapping North Mississippi Country blues style and create an urgency missing from their more ‘modern’ songs. If you are unaware of this genre, check it out; it has a hypnotic, unstoppable groove which is different to blues and creates tracks which last two minutes, but they could be two hours and you wouldn’t mind.

‘Run Red Rooster’ is a slick slide number fattened by fast drum fills which fades into ‘Stealin’ and Deep Ellum’; two classic blues standards of slide guitar and juke joint piano. ‘Stealin’ with its acoustic slide nods its head towards the Stones’ ‘Country Honk’, while ‘Deep Ellum’ is quite possibly the best song on the album: sitting somewhere between the Band and Creedence. With the Gospel inflections of the album’s opener it is a boozed up bar-room number with studio sophistications – the Holy Grail the Allstars were looking for.

Mississippi Fred McDowell’s ‘You got to move’, gets a considerable reworking with electronic drums and echoing vocals but you feel the band failed to fully commit. The other McDowell track, ’61 Highway’ is played well but is nothing new. However, at this point unoriginality isn’t such a big issue on the album; the Allstars are such talented musicians, showing such an affinity and appreciation of the past that at the very least these covers are celebrations of great songs.

‘Bid You Goodnight’ is a beautiful country tune with soaring slide solos which sound like angels exhaling air. At the half way point the piano we heard on ‘Stealin’ returns but only briefly as the instruments fade away to the two brothers singing a serenade to simplicity. Sadly, the song’s conclusion is not the album’s, and we get an unnecessary electronic remix of the album’s opener in ‘P4P2017’. Although it does mean that the album will come full circle, it undoes all of the previous poignancy and will have you praying for peace and quiet.

The North Mississippi Allstars’ albums often include grand statements such as 2013’s ‘World Boogie Is Coming’. ‘Prayer for Peace’ seems to attempt a concept, but lyrically isn’t strong enough to maintain it; only revisiting it at the end of the album. On the surface, it is a record of covers and minimal experimentation, but this apparent unoriginality is the Allstars’ actual ‘prayer’. In our modern world, where we are obsessed with what is trending, lust over what will happen and ignore what has, the Allstars give us peace and pleasure in the past and the music of country and blues which we can either make new or simply celebrate for what it is.

‘Prayer for Peace’ is out now via Legacy Recordings. The full track-listing is as follows…

  1. Prayer For Peace
  2. Need To Be Free
  3. Miss Maybelle
  4. Run Red Rooster
  5. Stealin
  6. Deep Ellum
  7. Bird Without A Feather
  8. You Got To Move
  9. 61 Highway
  10. Long Haired Doney
  11. Bid You Goodnight