BluesWax Spotlight On
May 14, 2012
New York City
1,200 Miles to Memphis Yet So Close To Home
By Kyle M. Palarino
If you were in Manhattan on May 14 you would think the hottest ticket in town would have been the New Jersey Devils visiting the New York Rangers for game one of the Eastern Conference Finals for a trip to the Stanley Cup. Well, being the Ranger fan that I am, I decided to check the score on my phone and watch the show to upstage the blue shirts. The Wandering were playing the intimate Joe’s Pub for a night of perfect acoustics and welcoming hospitality. Five strong performers joined on stage together in the spotlight, sharing the spotlight – a true night of beauty.
The Wandering is a group that Luther Dickinson of The North Mississippi Allstars ( and The Black Crowes, South Memphis String Band, and The Word) instigated as he called the guilty suspects to come to his late father Jim Dickinson’s recording studio, the Zebra Ranch, in Mississippi and record some songs and see what happens. The other guilty parties would be Shannon McNally, Valerie June, Sharde Thomas, and Amy LaVere. After two sessions at the Ranch they decided to release Go On Now, You Can’t Stay Here and do a limited tour for the album. Each musician is pretty busy in their own right, so this is a special tour I wanted to share with you.
Now I have seen this group billed as “Luther Dickinson’s The Wandering,” but he is only there to accompany the lovely women on the stage. Shannon, Amy, Sharde, and Valerie all take turns on songs and I really can’t single one out for the talent they brought to the table. All I can say is this is an absolutely amazing group that brings their fingers to play and voices to sing. I’ll get into more specifics in a little bit as I get into the meat of the show.
First let’s get into the little known opening act, Luther Dickinson – solo. He just released an album of all-instrumental songs on acoustic guitar called Hambone Meditations. The album was released on the same day as The Wandering’s CD and also as another project of his, the South Memphis String Band’s Old Times There… So Luther warmed this New York City crowd up on a rainy night with some solo guitar. He only played two songs from the album and then just played as if he was at home – he seemed so comfortable on the stage like we were his family and friends and he could play anything for us. So he played “Blind Lemon and the Hookman” and “Breckenridge Blues” from the album before letting his long hair down. He ripped through an emotional version of “Let It Roll” from the Allstars’ last album, Keys to the Kingdom, which was written just after his father had passed. Man, I thought he was going to rip the strings right off that guitar or punch another hole in it at some points – that was intense! He cooled it off to play some fingerpicking of one of his favorites, Mississippi John Hurt. I always wanted to hear him play John Hurt’s music when the Allstars first started out playing all of the North Mississippi Hill Country music, so for me this was a treat that even the Rangers first goal couldn’t beat. He then wrapped it up with another of his favorites, Mr. R.L. Burnside. A medley of his music on the acoustic that was no less than magnificent and just as wild as watching R.L. himself and being mesmerized. So for that short set, I must say, “Thank you Luther – that was perfect.”
Then after the briefest intermission he brought out four women that I could have watched all night. Front and center for the first song was Ms. Sharde Thomas, granddaughter of the late Otha Turner, playing his fife on “Sittin’ on Top of the World” from the Mississippi Sheiks’ songbook. Nothing could have brought the audience into the southern upbringing of this group better than this song and the delivery of Ms. Thomas. LaVere and McNally were crammed together smiling to give Sharde the limelight for the first song.
Then Sharde went on to the drum kit in the back. From this point each of the women on the stage took turns on vocals. LaVere played bass throughout, McNally guitar, Valerie June alternated between guitar and banjo, and Luther played guitar, banjo, and coffee can guitar (If you want to know, you’d show up and witness, can I get a “hallelujah”?)
I’ll just give you some of the highlights of the evening, and they are not easy to narrow down. This was a show that I am glad I did not pass up. Valerie first asked how many people had been to Mississippi before moving along and actually got a decent response from us city slickers, then went into Robert Johnson’s “If I Had Possession Over Judgment Day.” The power in her vocals could make a Klingon cry. I swear that Valerie is one artist that could do an album of Johnson’s songs that I would actually enjoy listening to just because of her shear depth, it’s the quality that Johnson had that made him. But what also made this song over the top was LaVere’s bass and Sharde’s drumming combined to provide this rhythm that made a crazed beat you wanted to move to in a panicked frenzied dance craze from the 1960s. Maybe Dick Clark would be better to describe it, but we must move on. Amy LaVere has one of the most unique voices and she could even belt out “Wang Dang Doodle.” Now this wasn’t the Chicago blues standard version, but remember Koko Taylor was born in Memphis and just got her brass note on Beale Street, God bless her. Shannon McNally brought more of the country side into the fold as her full voice made Kris Kristofferson’s “Lovin’ (Her) Him Was Easier Than Anything I’ll Ever Do Again” a classic again and again.
“In the Pines” was masterfully sung by Valerie. The song is a crossbreeding between the Carter Family and Leadbelly, as she stated on their website. Shannon took the obscure Little Willie John song, “Love, Life, and Money,” and gave it a hot swagger. Her voice is so pleading and persuasive you just want to hear what she has to say. Sharde came out with this marching drum beat to back up Valerie on her banjolin to sing “You Are My Sunshine” on the rainy night. It lit the room up as bright as the sun on Mercury. To close out the set in true Turner fashion, Sharde came out with her fife and led the group in “Glory, Glory Halleluiah.” Everyone sang along. I think Amy was jumping along with her big upright bass; the energy was tall as the Empire State Building.
Now, before I got on with the encore, let me give props to Luther for playing rhythms on each song and playing solos when appropriate. He was a gentleman on the stage and it was his project so to speak, but he did not take center stage at all. In fact the light was rarely on him. Luther is a very talented songwriter and musician, but it was wonderful to see Sharde, Valerie, Shannon, and Amy getting the light and sharing it. At one point during the show, Amy complimented Sharde on her drumming. The amount of respect they had for each other regardless of time they had known each other or played together really came across onstage and a large part of that I believe has to do with the man who started the project, Mr. Luther.
For the encore only Amy and Luther took the stage at first. Amy did “The Blues Jumped a Rabbit,” which is a song she found on YouTube by Karen Dalton from 1970. It’s a quiet piece that Amy’s voice has an innocent quaver on and Luther’s guitar gives it a full deeper bass than the original song. Absolute splendor in the form of notes. The stage cleared for the presence of Ms. Valerie June. She did a song for the women, which was fitting since this really was about them tonight, “Workin’ Woman Blues.” Then they all came up for “Mr. Spaceman.” Originally done by The Byrds, on this version they all take a verse and Shannon even got to blow some kazoo for kicks. It’s just a fun song that you can lay back and have a drink with.
The girls had enough of Luther sitting back and yelled at him for sitting back all night, so he plugged in the coffee can and tore into “Rollin’ and Tumblin’.” He let loose on the song and did not hold back at all. Then for the finale, Sharde came back up and led the club in a sing-a-long of “My Babe” – hill-country style, fife led. The crowd was clapping along, stomping, singing along; you couldn’t tell if it was the audience rockin’ Joe’s Pub or the roar of the subway underneath us. Sharde worked the crowd, she worked Luther to play some sweet slide, and she worked that fife.
Each one of these women played an integral role on the stage that night. I love watching great bass players, and Amy with that big upright bass was ecstasy for the ears. Shannon can captivate a crowd with her vocals and command of the song. Valerie has the wild dreads to go with her voice; it is awe inspiring. Sharde can smile and light up a room, then she plays those old songs that have been in her family for so long and you just smile along with her. Then Luther sits in the corner just watching what came together like a papa proud of his kids.
Some projects take time to develop, this one, due to the musicians involved, took little time at all. We should be grateful for the time they put into this and support them on the road or check out the disc. These musicians are firmly rooted in the music of the Mississippi cotton fields and much of it is presented on here. But remember music has no boundaries, just wanderers.
Kyle M. Palarino is a contributing editor at BluesWax.
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