Every so often, you're reminded of what makes music so special: The people.
On any given night, walking into The Iridium is like walking into the shrine of the great rock forefather Les Paul. Signed guitars and rock memorabilia cover the walls, in addition to lots of pictures of the most joyful guitar player you could ever imagine. The Wisconsin-born guitarist and inventor held a residency at the venue from 1996 until he passed away in 2009 at the age of 94.
Tuesday happened to be Les Paul's 100th birthday, and a series of events were planned around New York City for "Les Paul Day." At the Iridium, on Broadway and 51st, two concerts were scheduled: The North Mississippi Allstars at 8pm, and a private late night jam session.
You'd be hard pressed to find a more fitting band to play a concert in honor of Les Paul's birthday than the North Mississippi Allstars. Frontman Luther Dickinson is the kind of guitar player who can jam for hours and keep things interesting. His brother Cody is a charismatic drummer who brings jazz chops to high energy rock 'n roll. On this night, Catherine Popper was the bassist, keeping the grooves rolling with some deep bottom end.
From the start of the set, Les Paul's presence loomed large. This was a celebration, and the band clearly wanted to deliver a good time.
Things started with a loose open jam, as Luther went on explorations up and down the neck of his black Gibson Les Paul guitar. Quick chromatic runs and slides up and down the neck were the trademark of Les Paul's style, and tonight you could hear Luther pushing in that direction.
Guitar geeks out there might be interested in the fact that Luther has his own custom Gibson guitar model, which is like a combination between a Gibson 335 and a 330. For this special show, he played a couple of ES Les Paul guitars, a model introduced just last year with f-holes and a semi-hollow body.
After a few songs, Luther pulled out a guitar made out of a tin can and just one string. Playing slide, he and the band were able to get the whole room rocking. The crowd was loving it. Later on, Cody stepped up to the front of the stage with an electric washboard and jammed out solo before Luther got behind the drums for a song. Their father, Jim Dickinson, was an extraordinary musician and producer / engineer in the Memphis area, and the two of them obviously have a deep appreciation for the history of rock 'n roll as well as that crucial aspect of showmanship.
Toward the end of the set, Jamie McLean sat in on guitar. It was all smiles as sunburst guitars seemingly spread sun beams across the room. The setlist consisted mostly of classic blues from the likes of Charley Patton, Mississippi Fred McDowell, Elmore James, Bukka White, and R.L. Burnside. Later in the set, they played more of their original material and some classic rock jams drawing from The Rolling Stones' "Can't You Hear Me Knockin'" and Allman Brothers' "In Memory of Elizabeth Reed."
The highlight of the evening might have been the encore. The band played "And We Bid You Goodnight," a traditional tune that was often sung a capella by the Grateful Dead to close an epic concert. Luther employed an effect that echoed his guitar notes with a delay, another one of Les Paul's revolutionary inventions. The result was a heartwarming tribute that fit the moment perfectly.
The private jam session afterward started with a Led Zeppelin medley from the California-based band Count's 77. They nailed it, and the crowd was very much in awe of the sounds pouring off the stage. Frontman Danny "Count" Koker, of the History Channel's Counting Cars, shared that the band felt like they were on "hallowed ground." Seventeen year-old Lyric Dubee joined them for Black Sabbath's "War Pigs" and Ozzy Osbourne's "Crazy Train."
Afterward, Les Paul Trio members Lou Pallo and Paul Nowinski took over and jammed with Jon Paris (vocals & harmonica), and a rotation of guitarists that included Lyric Dubee, Earl Slick, Steve Costello, Joe Burger, and Joe Lewis Walker.
Les Paul was a brilliant guitarist and inventor. On this night, he was remembered as a human being and as a friend.
All photos taken by Francesco Marano. © Zumic, 2015