Booker T. Jones
A couple of years ago, I stood and watched Mr Booker T. Jones play, and I was disappointed. So much so, that I left before the end of the set, despite the fact The Drive By Truckers were Jones’ backing band, and that’s saying something. I felt the set was flat, I felt there was no excitement, I felt this wasn’t something I’d been waiting to see for years, but something that I really didn’t need to see at all. Booker T, the man who led the MGs and who made Stax into the respectable name it still is, just going through the motions. Even ‘Green Onions’ lacked that spark.
I shouldn’t have been too surprised really, as Jones (along with the Truckers) had just released a record that followed the same groove – Potato Hole, a record which, again, was funky organ grooves by numbers, none too inspiring to say the least. Potato Hole was Jones’ first recorded offering in almost twenty years and the fact he recorded it with a young, cool band, suggested he was back, looking for that groove he owned back in the ‘60s and early ‘70s when he was leading the MGs ever forward, taking those tunes to the world. Unfortunately, this wasn’t the case, and I and many like me, were disappointed.
However, Booker T. Jones didn’t get to where he is, just by giving up. No doubt he’s recorded albums in the past that weren’t too popular, and that sure as hell hasn’t stopped him carrying on. As such, just recently, another new Booker T. record landed on my desk and I threw it on, and whilst it didn’t blow me away, it affirmed that the spirit was still alive, and that he was getting back to the place where he left off, all those years ago. The Road From Memphis is the record, and again, Jones has teamed up with a ‘young, cool’ band in hip hop group, The Roots. Don’t let that put you off though, because this is all instruments/no samples, this is the freshest he’s sounded in years. That spark is reigniting, and you’d better believe that.
“Well, it was good timing running into The Roots on The Jimmy Fallon Show, I didn’t really have a choice about it,” Jones explains on how this record eventually came to be, and why it follows so soon after Potato Hole, released in 2009. “So I had that opportunity to record with them and I wrote the songs as quickly as I could…so yeah, it’s good fortune to run into people you gel with musically.” Jones goes on to say he wouldn’t have recorded another album at this point in his career if he’d not run into The Roots at that time, The Roots being one of many groups who’ve sampled Jones’ work over the years – it seems it was a solid match right off the bat.
“Well they’re a family and they accepted me into their family,” Jones says of the connection – indeed, listening to The Road From Memphis, you’d think these guys had been playing together for years. “So we really play together well, and they know me because they have sampled some of the Stax stuff, and they’re a hip hop band, but they’ve patterned themselves after the real musicians of the ‘70s, they play the real instruments, they don’t use drum machines or computers, at least not to make the music.” The result is as tight as you’d expect from a group like The Roots, the drumming of ?uestlove in particular the foundation of the record, providing a solid, Stax-esque beat for Jones to play over.
Elsewhere on The Road To Memphis, there are a few surprises. Jones is certainly wont to work with other musicians, obviously, and so there are a few cameo appearances here, some obvious (Sharon Jones on the track, ‘Representing Memphis’), some interesting (Yim Yames from My Morning Jacket on ‘Progress’ and Matt Berringer from The National dueting with Sharon Jones) and one quite odd, the godfather of punk, Lou Reed on album closer, ‘The Bronx’. I certainly wouldn’t have expected to see Reed anywhere near a Booker T record.
“Yeah, I don’t think he thought so either,” Jones says with a laugh. “We were pretty sure he wasn’t gonna like that track until we got into the studio and were working on it, it was written actually by my daughter, Liv Jones…but it sounds to me like a Lou Reed lyric, you know? And he appreciated the lyric.” It’s a track that does end up suiting Reed, that gravelly vocal really painting a picture of the Bronx itself, an urban jungle, backed to the hilt by Jones’ driving organ work.
“I’m a son of great fortune here,” Jones finishes, on what The Road To Memphis means to him at his point in his career. “I was surrounded by great people here and everyone who contributed to the album did such excellent work. As an artist, I have no way of guiding or predicting what I’m going to come out with…it had good elements and I had good songs. So once I began to hear the sound of the first song, I realised, ‘Well, maybe this is gonna be great’…before you go in, you’re in the dark…then you go in and that’s when the excitement happened, you just wanna keep going.” Booker T is coming back, and even after 50 years, there’s still new ground to cover.
Samuel J. Fell