Aside from co-leading the North Mississippi Allstars with his brother Cody, Luther Dickinson has spearheaded a number of solo projects drenched in American roots music since 2009. Solstice is a kind of companion to 2012's Go On Now, You Can't Stay Here by the Wandering -- Dickinson's first project with female vocalists. Longtime associates Amy LaVere and Sharde Thomas were part of the earlier group and contribute alongside gospel trio the Como Mamas, Amy Helm, and Birds of Chicago's Allison Russell. Dickinson convened the singers/musicians at his family's Zebra Ranch Studio over four days in 2016 for a relaxed jam and recording session. The idea was for these women -- some of whom had never met -- to engage and interact with one another in an unrehearsed situation and capture the encounter on tape. While the singers and studio instrumentalists committed their best takes live to tape, additional instruments -- Lillie Mae Rische's fiddle, Rev. Charles Hodges' Hammond B-3, and Will Sexton's and Alvin Youngblood Hart's guitars -- were overdubbed later.
The relaxed nature of the proceedings dictated that the material be comprised of spot-chosen originals and covers, including tunes that some singers had previously cut and released on their own.
Surprise is the name of the game as blues, fife, and drum music, gospel, folk, country, and R&B commingle in the moment. Opener "Superlover," with Russell on lead vocals, is caressed by acoustic guitars, fiddle, and electric piano as she shuffles through the wandering spirits of Americana and soul. "Fly with Me," sung by Thomas, features her fife and snare playing, Dickinson's boogie-tastic slide playing, and Russell's banjo stroll through an R&B-cum-swamp pop tune. "Hallelujah (I'm a Dreamer)" is the first of LaVere's three selections. Penned by the Louisiana songwriter David Eagan, she marries his sweet Cajun rock to Doc Pomus' streetwise pop as whining slide, snare, and backing chorus caress her every sung line. Helm delivers a killer version of Bobby Neuwirth's and T-Bone Burnett's "Like a Sparrow That Has Fallen." Country gospel meets Southern folk driven by a shuffling snare, Wurlitzer, fiddle, banjo, and electric guitar. Helm delivers the prayer in the lyric as both plea and manifesto. On Russell's "Kathy," the singer's clarinet and banjo, an upright piano, and LaVere's upright bass hover just underneath her bluesy vocal. Rev. Charles Hodges' organ is the prime accompanist on Helm's "Sing to Me." It flows through her sweet take on rural soul, while clarinet and slide guitar add jazz and blues for good measure. The Como Mamas close the date with an a cappella reading of Dr. Thomas Dorsey's "Search Me." The trio deliver it here just as they do in church: as a down-home, call-and-response gospel tune infused with raw Delta blues. On Solstice, the good will and camaraderie shared by the set's participants perfectly balance the sacred and the secular. These performances are often startling in their gentle power to edify, making Dickinson's ideas for a collaborative project a fruitful one.