As a national figure, Jim Dickinson is best recognized for his work producing or otherwise collaborating with other artists --a roll call of greats that includes Big Star, the Rolling Stones, Bob Dylan, and the Replacements --or, more recently, for his role as patriarch of the North Mississippi Allstars. But locals and hardcore music fans know he's been a formidable artist in his own right as well, particularly in his role with Memphis' more-a-legend-than-a-band Mud Boy & the Neutrons.
Dickinson reintroduces himself this month with Free Beer Tomorrow (Artemis; Grade: B+), his first solo studio record in 30 years, released on a label that boasts such complementary artists as Steve Earle, Warren Zevon, and the Allstars. Free Beer Tomorrow is likely to be categorized as a blues record in many quarters, but it deserves the overused term Cosmic American Music if anything does: a blues-based roots-music collection that carries echoes of gospel, ragtime, Dixieland, and jug bands. This is the kind of blues record that you get from a lifetime music fan with a first-hand recollection of pre-urban-renewal Beale Street.
"I got old, and I done got gray," Dickinson howls on the opening "JC's NYC Blues," "but if you wanna see me fool around/Better come and lay your money down." And that sets the mood: This is a raunchy, earthy, energetic record, one that has some of the mood, if not quite the genius, of Dylan's "Love & Theft". Dickinson's well-worn voice sounds better as a growl than as a croon, which is one reason the Joe Callicott opener and the Peter Stampfel yowler "Bound to Lose" sound so invigorating, while the softer "It's Rainin'" may be for true believers only. Backup vocals on several cuts sound a little questionable to these ears, but pretty much every other musical decision is just right, even when it's all wrong.
In all honesty, Reekin' with Love (Jazzoid Records; Grade: A-), the latest from local staples Di Anne Price & Her Boyfriends, is one of those records seemingly produced to be sold to locals and tourists at gigs, not consciously seeking out a larger audience the way the other records in this column are. It repeats songs recorded on previous Price discs and is meant to give those who've likely bought it at a Price gig a souvenir of the experience (especially with the joyously leering "bonus tracks" and live-set staples "Spinach Medley" and "The Key Hole Song") -- a (priceless) opportunity to recreate a Price show in their own home. And that's all fine, because Di Anne Price is still a genius interpretive singer, still the most shocking treasure that Memphis' professional music culture has to offer. And the comforting and assuring accompaniment of Boyfriends Tom Lonardo (drums), Jim Spake (saxophone), and Tim Goodwin (bass) still combines with Price's piano-and-vocal magic for the sexiest music in Memphis.
Price has a chilling, smoky voice equally adept at bawdy, barrelhouse blues and light jazz and pop touches (check out "My Man Stands Out" for the latter), but the key to her greatness is her refusal to show that voice off. Price always digs deep into the guts of a song and deploys the supernatural sense of timing that all the great singers have, knowing just when to drop a vocal grace note.
Though there are three fine Price-penned songs here -- "Elaine," a Price/Lonardo original about a 1919 Arkansas race riot, the menacing "You Better Help Your New Woman," and the rockabillyish title track -- Reekin' with Love is certainly not the most original, the most ground-breaking, or the most forward-looking local record anyone will here this year. But these 72 minutes of music, while not as vibrantly recorded as Price's last release, are second only to the Reigning Sound's Time Bomb High School as the most enduring, consistently pleasurable local listen of the year.
Though he's since returned to his native Oregon, Mark Lemhouse leaves us with one of the year's best local blues releases, Big Lonesome Radio (Yellow Dog; Grade: A-). Through his work with outfits like the Bluff City Backsliders and the Handy Three, Lemhouse proved to be an accomplished and tasteful talent, a sure competitor to Richard Johnston as best young, white blues player on the scene. And this solo debut brings that promise to fruition, with Lemhouse equally convincing whether blowing through the electric boogie of "What's the Matter with Papa's Little Angel Child" or snaking his way through an acoustic number like "Baby Sister Blues."
Accompanied by a cast of ubiquitous local players -- including Handy Three comrade Scott Bomar (who also produced the record) on bass and Backsliders Jason Freeman, Michael Graber, and Clint Wagner on banjo, mandolin, and violin, respectively -- Lemhouse takes the listener on a consistently reverent but playful journey through the blues tradition, mixing originals with interpretations of classics from the likes of Fred McDowell, Johnny Shines, Yank Rachell, and Charley Patton.
And Lemhouse branches out smartly from this blues base: giving Tom Waits' "No One Can Forgive Me But My Baby" the hill-country treatment while staying faithful to the rockabilly of Charlie Feathers' "One Hand Loose." Lemhouse shows even greater range on sharp originals, particularly the tango "Jealous Moon" and the waltz "Edwin's Lament."