The blues drop into Knuckleheads about as often as the trains pass by the roadhouse in the East Bottoms, but it’s not often they evoke the kind of fury and variety that filled the place Thursday night.
The North Mississippi Allstars headlined, drawing a crowd that can be best described as standing-room-only except in those places where it was so packed you could barely stand. For about two hours, the brothers Dickinson — guitarist Luther and drummer/percussionist Cody — and mountainous electric-bass man Chris Chew entertained more than 400 people with their varied takes on Southern rock and country and Delta blues.
The openers were the Buffalo Killers, a trio from Ohio whose take on the classic- and garage-rock/blues dovetailed nicely with the headliners’ music. As the headliners set up their gear, fans filled the floor in front of the stage, ensuring this would be no sit-down show, unless you took a seat in back or inside the large heated tent annex outside. This was an overflow crowd, but most chose to stay inside the club proper.
The Allstars opened with a groovy fusion of “Shimmy She Wobbles” and “Station Blues,” igniting a mood that ebbed and flowed throughout the set. Next was the gritty, gospel-infused “The Meeting,” then “Keep the Devil Down,” a mix of thick funk, heavy rock and gut-bucket blues.
From the grimy rock/blues of “Goin’ Down South” to the acoustic country-blues number “Hear the Hills” to Chew’s soft and soulful cover of “People Get Ready,” the music changed colors and dynamics as often as the Dickinsons changed instruments. Luther, also a member of the Black Crowes, played a variety of acoustic and electric guitars, including a two-string cigar-box (attached to a broomstick) and what looked like a coffee-can guitar, unleashing a slew of leads, with a slide or his fast-picking fingers. Cody, too, strapped on a guitar during an acoustic instrumental that slightly resembled the Allman Brothers’ “Jessica.” He also played electric washboard during a hell-bent cover of “Rollin’ and Tumblin’.”
The conditions were not ideal. Oddly, the vocals came and went from one song to the next. Chew was inaudible during his first lead-vocal duties. Likewise, Luther’s voice was much clearer on some songs than others. Some of that had do to with the crowd around the bar, which gradually became disengaged from the show and started talking, sometimes loudly, making it hard to hear things clearly. As crowded as the room was, the sightlines weren’t good from afar. Up front, however, the diehards remained in a steady state of movement and beer-buzzed glee, down to the last notes of “Sugartown,” an old-time, good-time blues song about liberation of the body and soul. The Allstars managed to reach a big crowd at both levels Thursday night, which isn’t something you see at every blues show.