Booker T. Jones

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Booker T in performance at BluesFest held at Under the Bridge in London
By Paul Wood
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Booker T in performance at BluesFest held at Under the Bridge in London
By Paul Wood
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Booker T in performance at BluesFest held at Under the Bridge in London
By Paul Wood

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Hammond B3 alchemist Booker T Jones is one America's most prolific, distinguished and instantly recognizable musical forces, and the arrival of his new Anti- album, Potato Hole, not only re-affirms his greatness, it also re-introduces the neglected all-instrumental format to a noisy, crowded marketplace crying out for precisely the type of soul satisfying pleasure which Jones excels at. With choice accompaniment by the capable Southern rock visionaries Drive By Truckers and a sound often pushed into over drive by the volcanic lead guitar of rock & roll legend Neil Young, it is an altogether extraordinary set. Featuring a mixture of newly written songs and a trio of intriguing covers, all recorded in a scant one weeks time, Potato Hole captures Booker T at the critical peak of a renewed creative phase in his storied career. "I really feel like I've been opened up again, I've got the creative muse working for me," Jones said. "It's like I have discovered a new method, a little road I can take to open it up, and I'm excited about playing this music."

The album rolls through a selection of far-ranging compositions, each separate and distinct pieces that, by turn, manifest his characteristic adoration of the groove, exploring and exploiting each mood to the limit. Whether it's a case of cosmological serenity or funky staccato chicken peck work-outs, Jones' melodic vision and expansive arrangements are delivered with a mesmerizing quality. The album also pushes into sometime previously unvisited-by Jones territory: lead track "Pound It Out" is a brawny, relentless exercise in hard rock, an intense, driving song that's far more of a head-banger than a blast of steam-heated soul. If that seems out of place, you don't really know Mr. Jones; "I like rock music, always have." he said. "Otis [Redding] did too, and we were getting into it a bit, but couldn't really do it back then. It just wasn't right for Stax." The statement is more than a bit provocative, but the musician tosses out such revelations like carelessly hurled thunderbolts, an arsenal accrued over the course of his remarkable career.

Born in Memphis, Tennessee on November 12 1944, Jones' interest in music manifested itself early, and as a child he both sang gospel in church and received classical training on the piano. A fascination with the Hammond B3 grew to the point where he funded his own organ lessons with newspaper route money and by his teens, Jones found himself at Stax Records, first as an underfoot hanger-on and soon on staff, as leader of the house band. Backing fabled stars like Rufus and Carla Thomas, Otis Redding, Sam & Dave and Eddie Floyd both in the studio and on the road, the teenager's multi-instrumental prowess--on keys, brass and reeds--was impressive. With his Memphis Group cohorts Steve Cropper, Donald "Duck" Dunn and Al Jackson, Jones laid out the blueprint for the fabled Stax sound and reaped his own rewards with a string of hits that frequently crossed over to the pop charts. Jones post-Stax resume has been equally impressive, recording with everyone from Bobby Darin to John Lee Hooker and producing for numerous artists (including Bill Withers' signature Ain't No Sunshine album and Willie Nelson's 1978 multi-platinum blockbuster Stardust). Jones and the MGs re-formed to serve as house band for the famed 1991 Bob Dylan tribute at Madison Square Garden (which led to a sustained alliance between Neil Young and Jones). Along the way, he's also scored numerous films and enjoyed induction into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in 1992.

Potato Hole demonstrates that not only is Jones' talent and power undiminished, it also reveals how much there is to his music that we've never heard before. Jones has a remarkable knack for telling a story with his melodies, compositions so thoughtfully constructed that one can almost visualize narrative events, as the self-explanatory "Pound it Out", the room-to-room filial warmth of "Family Reunion", the illimitable intimacy and affection of "Nan" (Jones' wife), and, in the case of title track (the term is a 19th century Afro-American colloquialism for the spot where smuggled food items were stashed beneath slave quarters), a cinematic, almost epic recounting of the struggles and spiritual resilience slavery imposed. This quality is so pervasively seductive that you may find yourself singing along, as if Jones was telegraphing lyrics that exist only within the listener. Even the three songs here that did not originate with Jones (Outkast's "Hey Ya," Tom Waits' "Get Behind the Mule" and the Drive By Truckers' own "Space City") are transformed into vintage Booker T jams, shimmering with relaxed, after-hours atmosphere and full of the fiery, taut organ work for which he is rightfully prized.

Whether laying down a meditative ramble or hard-charging rocker, Jones' sense of artistic liberation and depth of involvement on every track here is breath taking--with Potato Hole, the cat is going into orbit. "The Hammond B3 and me have this thing goin' on. It's always there inside me. I've heard whole pieces in my head that I'll never even remember--and now I'm finally getting them out." he explained. "It gives me a freedom that I didn't have . . . I sort of had it with the MG's in the 60s, but even then it was more murky. This is lot more clear. I don't know how to put it, except it's like I can see again."

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