MIM Music Theater
October 3, 2013
Heading to the Musical Instrument Museum to see Booker T. Jones, I--and probably many other concert goers--expected a soul revival. Instead, the sold-out audience was treated to a rock and roll show. To be fair, the bulk of the nearly two-hour long concert from the prolific songwriter, performer and producer was filled with vintage-sounding soul, thick with Hammond B-3 organ riffs, bottomless bass, and gritty guitar interplay, but there was plenty of unexpected screaming guitars and uproarious organs to make this one of the loudest shows to come through the MIM Theater.
The evening started out appropriately enough, with a vintage funk groove, heavy on the bass and organ, with perfectly timed guitar fills and a steady, rollicking backbeat. It was the sound that would anchor the evening's performance, particularly the instrumental tracks that are Jones' trademark. The groove gradually built into "Harlem House" from Jones' 2011 album, The Road to Memphis.
Jones looked comfortable behind the organ--and for a stretch standing center stage, guitar in hand--a place he's occupied for nearly 50 years. With a jaunty smile under his pork pie hat, Jones proceeded with the spaghetti western classic "Hang 'em High," a song sent to the band, he explained, from former Los Angeles Rams owner Dominic Frontiere. It wasn't hard to imagine Clint Eastwood riding across the museum stage--only, given the time period when this version of the song was composed, smoking a joint instead of a cigar, and wearing paisley chaps.
Jones also brought out several tracks from his most recent release, Sound the Alarm. These tracks borrowed heavily from the early M.G.'s sound but didn't quite offer the same vintage lift. "Fun" was bouyant and possessed a heavy groove and sweet, swelling organ, but "Feel Good" and "'61 Impala" never quite got off the ground. Both nice tracks, to be sure--and "'61 Impala" had that kind of cool "Lowrider" feel--but it almost felt like Jones was recycling the past for the sake of keeping the past alive.
And it is alive, by its own accord, in so many funk and soul staples that even though Jones was the creator of the sound, we also expect something more every time. It's a difficult position for any musician, perhaps more so for this trend-setting Hall of Famer.
Where Jones came off stronger in this regard were on the more modern soul shakedowns he recorded with The Roots, "Everything is Everything" and "Crazy." These songs captured Jones' signature sound, but with updated rhythms, beats and tempos.
Jones also dug into the blues on two Albert King numbers he either had a hand in writing: "Born Under a Bad Sign" and "Oh, Pretty Woman." He played guitar on the latter, picking with his fingers as he sang.
With the exception of two songs, every track Jones performed benefited from his deft touch somewhere, be it writing, producing or performing. Where he wandered, however, was on songs by people who greatly touched him in other ways. This is where the revival went R 'n' R.
First up was Jimi Hendrix's version of The Leaves classic "Hey Joe." Jones related a story about going to the 1967 Monterey Pop Festival. "I didn't hear a lot of music," Jones told the audience--one of his many between-song anecdotes--"but there was one guy who moved me." The band, playing the song live for the first time, gave the track a soulful touch among the stinging guitar leads, sweltering organ blasts and propulsive bottom end. Strangely, this song--and not one of Jones' own--received the loudest ovation.
The other non-Jones song came courtesy of Bob Dylan, a one-time neighbor in California. Dylan, Jones said, dragged him down to a movie set one early morning where he performed "Knocking on Heaven's Door." On guitar, Jones solidified the memory with a moving rendition.
Like any concert, there were plenty of highs and a few not-too-low moments, but in total it was a solid and highly satisfying evening of funky Memphis soul. Jones clearly felt it too--his smile never faded all night.
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Critic's Notebook: Last Night: Soul shaker, Hall of Famer and instigator of Memphis soul, Booker T. Jones. Personal bias: This is the music to play when getting a groove on. The crowd: An older audience familiar with the artist, mostly through 45s. (You know, those old 7" records.) Random notebook dump: Booker T. wrote "Born Under A Bad Sign"? No wonder it was such a big hit for Albert King. Overheard: From numerous people discussing the songs they'd just heard at the concert: "I bought that one on 45 when it came out."