I had planned to post the review of Booker T. Jones’ new album, Potato Hole, last month, on the week it debuted, but I never got around to finishing the write-up. I apologize for the delay, but I figured that the damage was minimal, since a webcomic/blog that pays homage to a three-decade old film genre isn’t necessarily dedicated to the most timely observations of pop culture, anyway.
For those of you who may not know, Booker T. Jones gained his fame during the 1960s as part of the in-house rhythm section for Memphis, Tennessee-based soul music label Stax Records. The rhythm section included Jones on the organ, Steve Cropper on guitar, Lewie Steinberg on bass, and Al Jackson, Jr. on drums. Collectively, they became the original lineup of “Booker T. & The MGs.” However, like their house band counterparts at Motown, The Funk Brothers, Booker T. & the MGs not only recorded with the R&B luminaries from their respective labels, but they defined the very sound of their label. Stax recording artists, and future Rock & Roll Hall of Famers like Otis Redding, Sam & Dave, Johnnie Taylor, Isaac Hayes and The Staple Singers all sweated in out in the studio with Booker T. & The MGs.*
Booker T. & the MGs’ also recorded their own songs, and as a group, they scored success with songs like “Time Is Tight,” and “Soul Limbo,” but their most famous hit was undoubtedly “Green Onions.” Recorded in 1962, “Green Onions” is an evocative, jazzy, acoustic track that manages to be urbane and soulful at the same time. In “Green Onions,” Booker T.’s cool organ riffs and Alan Jackson, Jr.’s steady, simple snare prowl through your speakers like a down-home version of Henry Mancini’s “Peter Gunn Theme,” punctuated by twangy, bluesy yelps from Steve Cropper’s guitar. ”Green Onions” was one of the first ringtones I downloaded, and when I gave my Mom her choice of song, she hand-picked “Green Onions” to be the ringtone I hear when she calls me. (Hi, Mom!)
As a Booker T. fan, I was pleasantly surprised to discover several months ago that Jones would be releasing a new CD this year, but I was intrigued to learn that contemporary Southern rockers, Drive-By Truckers**, would be backing up Jones and producing the new album, as well. (Oh, some guy named Neil Young was also playing on the album.) I’ve had the pleasure of seeing two live performances by the Drive-By Truckers and a solo performance by DBT founding member, Patterson Hood at Columbia, South Carolina’s New Brookland Tavern. The collaboration seemed like an odd grouping, so I was curious to hear how the album would sound.
The entire album is instrumental, but that’s OK with me, since it’s my impression that Booker T. plays the organ with the inflections and sensibilities of a vocalist, anyway. Booker T.’s organ music floats and weaves among the guitars and percussion, like an ethereal presence, sometimes high and brassy, sometimes gutteral and churchy, and often elegant. The first song, “Pound It Out,” sets the tone of the album, and you know from the first notes that The Truckers are in the house, and they’ve come to play. However, Booker T. is right behind them, and he’s brought his “A” game, too. To me, this is the song on the album that came closest to feeling like “The Drive-By Truckers featuring Booker T.,” but I didn’t mind, because it’s the hardest rocking song on the album. The most soulful tune on the album is “Warped Sister,” with Booker T.’s fingers sliding and slurring over the keys like a jukejoint singer just starting to feel his moonshine buzz. The song rocks along at a nice clip with some fuzzy, snarly guitar work thrown in for good measure. However, the next cut, “Get Behind The Mule,” is the sinister, bluesy counterpoint to “Warped Sister.” It’s the same singer, later in the night, singing a dark, measured, conspiratorial tale of pain and loss for the last few patrons in the place, all to a shuffling, steady beat. Although these were my two favorite songs, the most anticipated cut off the album for most people was Booker T.’s rendition of the 2003 Outkast hit, “Hey Ya!” The only thing I can say about the head-boppin’ cover is that Booker T., DBT, and Young not only bring the energy, but they bring the only thing that was missing from the Grammy Award-winning crowd pleaser (and the only thing that could replace Andre 3000’s inimitable vocal delivery of lines like “Shake it like a Polaroid PIC-chah!”). That missing element: cowbell. And you can never go wrong with cowbell. Ever. The final track “Space City” is a spare, simple tune that feels like it could have been improvised by Booker T. In this selection, the organ is flat-out church. It starts off soft and low, like a music director riffing on the organ while the collection plate is being passed around and the preacher delivers the offertory prayer. Then the song builds in intensity with some beautiful musical flourishes from Booker T., just like that preacher trying to get a few more dollars into the plate, before he dials it back down in the final third, returning to the musical phrasing and themes that started the song.
My verdict: Potato Hole is a little more laid-back Muscle Shoals than sweaty Memphis rhythm and blues. If you’re a Drive-By Truckers’ fan, odds are good that you’ll enjoy this album, but if you dig the musical acumen of Booker T. you won’t be disappointed either. It’s not a party album, but it does make nice driving music.
* The Stax Records 50th Anniversary compilation is a tremendous resource for the history of the label and would make a great addition to anyone’s record collection.
** Coincidentally, the Drive-By Truckers recorded a song called “A World Of Hurt.” No relation.