It isn’t often you get to see a true musical giant up so close and personal. Seeing Booker T. Jones, the man whose name is (to me) most synonymous with “Stax”, in a venue like New York’s City Winery, is a rare treat. This man, who was the driving force behind Stax’ house band, The M.G.’s, has been doing his thing non-stop with the birth of the label in 1960 and here is is, going as strong as ever – with a current album, Sound The Alarm and this tour. Seated comfortably about six chairs from the stage, I knew we were in for a good show.
Opening up was an acoustic guitarist/singer/songwriter, Aaron Lee Tasjan. I was very pleased by his set – wry lyrics which, to me, make fun of hipsters and general modern-world superficiality. With songs like “Junk Food and Drugs” and “Everything I Have Is Broken”, he does a fine job of catching your ear and holding your attention. Even more eye-opening was his guitar playing – a Hendrix-like number of solos on an acoustic guitar was worthy of some very boisterous cheering. And he has a great way – I felt – of connecting with the audience. He was funny and charming and it worked on all levels. I say check him out when you have a chance.
As Booker T. came out to a rousing applause after a brief intermission, he was joined by a full band (guitar, bass, drums) as they kicked into “Harlem House”; the sound immediately had its problems. By the end of the second song, it seemed like Booker T. was frustrated as he got up from behind the keyboard and walked to center stage. Instead, he picked up a Stratocaster and began playing it and singing “Dock Of The Bay” – you could have knocked me over with a feather at this. I knew he was a multi-instrumentalist (although he’s known for his Hammond B3 style) but as far as I knew, he only ever sang once on an MG’s track (“Johnny I Love You”, the B-side of the “Time Is Tight” single); I’d always thought his was an instrumental career. Happy to say, I was wrong.
With a fine voice and great guitar skill, he then began to work his way on guitar through a set that included absolutely fantastic versions of “Knocking On Heaven’s Door”, “The Thrill Is Gone”, “Born Under A Bad Sign” and a damn near perfect (again the name comes up) Hendrix reading of “Hey Joe”. For a moment, you could forget that Booker T. is a Hammond master – BUT… once he introduced “Green Onions”, you knew it was back to business.
There were no disappointments or songs left out – “66 Impala” from Sound The Alarm, “Soul Limbo” and the moment that brought tears to my eyes, “Time Is Tight” – Booker T. put on more of a revue than a show. And I’m damned grateful for that. While he stayed for fans to meet and greet him afterward, I left with the rapturous sense of having had a near-religious experience. And that’s no exaggeration. Seeing and hearing Booker T. Jones perform reminds you why it’s called “soul”.
All photos by Rob Ross