The Road from Memphis starts with a young Booker T. Jones hauling his stack of newspapers to Phineas Newborn s front yard where, while folding them for his after-school delivery route, he could listen to the jazz great practice piano. It ends with Booker and The Roots roaring through a set of both timeless and contemporary originals (and propulsive covers of Gnarls Barkley s “Crazy” and Lauren Hill s “Everything Is Everything”). Along for the ride are vocalists Matt Berninger of the National, Yim Yames of My Morning Jacket, Sharon Jones, Lou Reed, and Booker himself, telling the story of how the funk/soul sound that Booker helped invent spiraled out from Memphis, touching The Root s hometown of Philadelphia, New York (where engineer Gabe Roth has been recreating classic soul sonics for everyone from Sharon Jones to Amy Winehouse), and Detroit. Detroit as in Dennis Coffey, legendary Motown session guitarist who introduced driving rock funk rhythm to hits like “Cloud Nine” and “Ball of Confusion” by the Temptations, and brings his Detroit grit to these tracks. The Road from Memphis is classic Memphis soul, and classic Booker in the tradition of “Green Onions”, but beyond that it is the story of a sound, and how Booker, working with the inheritors of his sound, is keeping a tradition alive.
Melting Pot could be the most well-realized of all the albums by Booker T. & the M.G.’s, a smooth and soulful, yet expansive 35 minutes of all originals, the latter in sharp contrast to their exploration of the Beatles’ Abbey Road album material on their preceding album. And the irony was that it was their swan song. Booker T. Jones, in particular, was increasingly unhappy working at Stax/Volt Records, owing his feelings to management and structural changes at the company, and also felt the need to change the group’s formula somewhat. Steve Cropper was playing lots of session work that was keeping him from recording in Memphis as well, and the result was an album recorded mostly in New York City, far away from Stax/Volt and largely built on the group’s (especially Jones’) best impulses. That said, Melting Pot managed to be a sort of back-to-the-roots effort in the sense that they were back to doing originals, but was also a strikingly more expansive record, with Jones in particular playing with an almost demonic intensity and range, backed ably by Donald “Duck” Dunn’s rocksteady bass in particular. There were a few other touches, such as the wordless chorus on “Kinda Easy Like” and extended running times, showing the group stretching out on much larger musical canvases.
Booker T. & the MG’s do what they do very well. What they do is present a spare, funky sound in which each instrument, drums (here played by Steve Jordan or James Gadson), bass, guitar, and organ, is heard distinctly, playing medium tempo melodies with slight variations. Precision is a key, and the result, while impressive, is anything but showy. Seventeen years since their last outing, the group exhibits the same qualities and the same limitations it did in its heyday.
Potato Hole is Booker T. Jones’ first solo album in two decades and the early buzz in the media has already termed it his most “audacious,” but that’s not exactly the case with this new set. It isn’t audacious so much as it is moderately predictable, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Recorded quickly with producer Rob Schnapf in Georgia and California, Jones is backed here by Athens, GA’s Drive-By Truckers with Neil Young sitting in on electric guitar for nine of the ten tracks, most of which were written by Jones. This isn’t the MGs, and nothing here is close to being as timeless as “Green Onions,” but the album is a pleasant listen with a nice, funky, and kind of grungy groove that settles into a deep pocket, even if it never really completely catches fire. There’s plenty of Jones’ Hammond B-3, of course, but he branches out and plays both acoustic and electric guitar on the title track, and with up to five guitars going on some tracks, this is almost as much an instrumental guitar album as it is an organ one. If there’s really anything audacious here, it would be the cover of Outkast’s “Hey Ya,” which sputters around more than it grooves, and Jones’ B-3 lines simply can’t approximate the sassy joy of Andre 3000’s original vocal. Jones also covers Tom Waits’ “Get Behind the Mule,” which comes off more successfully, although, again, one misses Waits’ vocal. The final cut, “Space City,” is a lovely chill-out instrumental while the opening track, “Pound It Out,” does exactly that, pounding things out, full of fuzzed-out guitars. Young, for those wondering, doesn’t take over anything here but remains the consummate session player, showing a delicate sensibility on guitar that one wishes he’d apply more often to his own work. Again, there’s no “Green Onions” track here, and nothing that’ll end up as everyone’s ringtone. Potato Hole isn’t a slab of greasy Stax soul, either. It is what it is, a new Booker T. Jones album, and hopefully it won’t take another 20 years to get to the next one.