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IN THE SPOTLIGHT: Jimbo Mathus

Jimbo Mathus | PHOTO BY ELIZABETH DECICCO

Jimbo Mathus | PHOTO BY ELIZABETH DECICCO

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Updated: March 13, 2014 11:21AM



Those who know Mississippi native Jimbo Mathus from his years fronting freewheeling roots music revisionists the Squirrel Nut Zippers, may be surprised by the primal rock sound of his band the Tri-State Coalition. “With the Zippers, I considered us a vaudeville act,” Mathus says. “It was theatrical. This is all go, no show.”

“Dark Night of the Soul” is Tri-State’s third album, drawing heavily upon blues and honky-tonk. “The sound is inspired by the stories I’m telling, and by the band itself,” says Mathus. “We’ve got a good, hard rhythm section.”

The band will bring Mathus’ topical songs raging to life at Empty Bottle on Friday. “Burn the Ships” is a full-tilt protest anthem recalling Neil Young’s most caustic rockers. “That’s from the early Spanish arrivals to America,” Mathus says, describing an indictment of imperialism. “They would come in a series of ships. Once they decided where to settle, they would send one ship back and burn the rest so they couldn’t leave.”

Other songs celebrate folk heroes new and old. “Casey Caught the Cannonball” updates the legend of doomed railroad engineer Casey Jones, who died in 1900 when his Cannonball Express passenger train struck a stalled freight train. “He lived in Water Valley, Mississippi, where I recorded this album,” Mathus says. “His actions saved a lot of lives, and a lot of songs have him cast unfairly. He told his fireman to jump off, and he held the brake until the bitter end.”

“Hawkeye Jordan” describes a less familiar character. “He’s a friend of mine,” Mathus says. “He says if he can’t help you, he won’t hurt you none. That song was inspired by southern rock songs like ‘Amos Moses’ or ‘Poor Elijah.’ They were just about good old dudes the writers knew. I thought, hell, I should write about Hawkeye. There’s nobody more outlandish than him.”

Soulful organ fuels the Louisiana swing of “Fire in the Canebrake,” featuring another harrowing tale. “It’s inspired by a book about the last mass lynching in America,” Mathus says.

“Living in Oxford [home of University of Mississippi], I catch a lot from the Southern Studies program,” he says. “I wouldn’t have learned about the lynching at Moore’s Ford if that book hadn’t been on the reading list. But then, I wouldn’t have known about Hawkeye Jordan unless I’d been sitting in his garage drinking peach moonshine. I’ve got one foot on each side.”

♦♦ Jimbo Mathus, with Cousin Dud, Old Grand Dad and Reins, 10 p.m. March 14, Empty Bottle, 1035 N. Western, (773) 276-3600. Tickets $10; emptybottle.com. SPOTIFY playlist: http://spoti.fi/1q9Hanc



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