Booker T. Jones is a true legend in modern pop and soul music. He started working as a professional musician at the age of 16 and co-wrote the 1962 #3 pop hit “Green Onions” while he was still in high school. As a member of Booker T. & the M.G.’s, he played on innumerable soul hits by artists such as Otis Redding and Sam and Dave, as the group served as the house band for Stax Records. He has produced a wide range of artists including Bill Withers, Willie Nelson, Kris Kristofferson, Rita Coolidge, Rodney Crowell, and Terence Trent D’Arby. Patterson Hood of the Drive-By Truckers recently talked about his recording experience with Booker T., “Working on that Booker record, which was an instrumental record, taught me about telling a story without words. I mean, he looked at that record very much as a concept record. … All the songs had stories. Our breakthrough was when he sat us down and started telling us the story that inspired each song.”
Booker T.’s Saturday night performance was an interesting look at not only songs by the M.G.’s, but also music that he worked on as a producer or session man, and songs that inspired him. Booker talks and looks more like a retired English teacher than a Memphis soul man; he carefully enunciates when he talks and each song was given a formal introduction. His current band includes Dorian Gray on drums, Melvin Brannon on bass, and Vernon Ice Black on lead guitar. Booker T.’s son Ted Jones also contributed lead guitar on certain selections throughout the evening. Drummer Dorian Gray was a fine timekeeper and even inserted a sharp rap into “Hip Hug-Her.” However, I enjoyed his extended solo on the Caribbean flavored “Soul Limbo” as little as every other drum solo I’ve heard for the past thirty years. Bassist Brannon emphasized a solid groove over notes per minutes and while lead guitarist Lead guitarist Black did an excellent Hendrix inspired solo on “Hey Joe,” his jazz improvisation style work on “Born Under a Bad Sign” didn’t fit the mood of the song.
Booker started the evening on his B-3 Hammand organ as the band performed the funk instrumental “Harlem House” from his 2011 album with The Roots and the 1968 spaghetti western meets soul hit “Hang ‘Em High.” Halfway through the night, Booker switched to guitar for a very hit or miss portion of the show. He performed his first vocal on Bill Wither’s “Ain’t No Sunshine,” a song that Booker T. produced. While his singing didn’t reach the melancholy ache of the original, he did a fine job. His band didn’t quite capture the world weary emotion of “Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door” and the cover of “Love the One Your With” was more interesting than illuminating. Worst of all was a full-length cover version of “Purple Rain” performed only by Booker T. and his son Ted. I felt like I was trapped in a long conversation that I couldn’t escape.
However, this is making it sound like it was worse than it was. The gliding organ on “Time is Tight” was pure pleasure and the funk guitar lick on “Potato Hole,” reminiscent of “Bustin’ Loose” by Chuck Brown and the Soul Searchers, gave another dimension to the M.G.’s sound. However, the best performance of the night was during the covers section when Booker T. paid tribute to Muddy Waters with a floor pounding version of “Manish Boy.” Smiling like a man that got away with bank robbery, Booker T. transformed his mild mannered presence into the strutting sexual bravado of Muddy’s declaration of virility. This was not a song that he played to celebrate his own legacy. He played it for love.
Grade – B
Hang ‘Em High
Born Under a Bad Sign
Ain’t No Sunshine
Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door
Love the One You’re With
Time is Tight
a nightmare that becomes a dream
Creem – America’s Only Rock ‘n’ Roll Magazine, Reviewed Issue By Issue – November 1976 (Volume 8, Number 6)
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