Booker T. returns with his first album in 20 yearsEverybody has heard Booker T. & the MGs’ loping, twisting instrumental hit “Green Onions,” even if they don’t know it by name.
According to Rob Bowman’s exhaustive Stax history Soulsville U.S.A.
, the group’s original bass player Lewie Steinberg came up with the song’s title: “To him,” guitarist Steve Cropper says, “[onions] were funky because they were stinky.” That’s a useful criterion of funkiness, defining it as a know-it-when-you-smell-it quality. Potatoes aren’t especially stinky in that regard; they won’t make you cry and don’t caramelize especially well, but Booker T. Jones’ new solo album, Potato Hole
, is nevertheless pungently funky, though iin a different odiferous way than his early work with the MGs.
During Stax’s heyday in the 1960s, Booker T. & the MGs (with Donald
“Duck” Dunn eventually replacing Steinberg) served as the label’s house
band, backing the likes of Otis Redding, Sam & Dave, Albert King
and Eddie Floyd. The group was supernaturally tight, moving as a single
entity rather than four unique musicians. When the band split and
Stax’s fortunes went south, Booker T. released a string of solo albums
and as a producer lent a streamlined precision to albums by Willie
Nelson, Bill Withers, Levon Helm and Neil Young. (We’ll overlook Bruce
Willis’ Return of Bruno.)
For his first solo album in 20
years, Booker T. has corralled Young and the Drive-By Truckers to back
him on the all-instrumental tracks, so you know it’s going to be loose,
loud, raw and crunchy. Young fits nicely amidst the Truckers (he
recorded his parts separately, after Booker T. and the Truckers laid
the foundation), transforming Patterson Hood and Mike Cooley’s
two-guitar assault into a three-guitar scribble contest—apparently,
that’s how many excellent guitar players it takes to equal one Cropper.
The MGs were exacting, but the Truckers are a larger vehicle
altogether, looming and formidable if not especially agile, and they
give Potato Hole the casual, off-the-cuff vibe of a spirited
jam session. The three guitarists show off on “Warped Sister,” sending
riffs skyward like campfire sparks, and they blaze through the title
track and “Native New Yorker” with giddy energy. They lurch and lumber
through Tom Waits’ “Get Behind the Mule,” percolate persuasively on
“She Breaks” and turn gentle on “Nan,” a valentine to Booker T.’s wife.
Booker T. is more a frontman than a bandleader here, which makes Potato Hole sound
less like a solo album and more like a band project. Shonna Tucker’s
nimble bass puts some spring into the songs, and drummer Brad Morgan—an
unsung time-keeper and rhythm master—keeps everyone in check with his
trusty cowbell. The legend may be outnumbered, but he’s never
outgunned. He bends notes fluidly on “Warped Sister,” wrist-flicks
licks on the sunny “Reunion Time” and ruminates tenderly on the
Truckers’ “Space City.” And he gets more texture and character—real,
expressive, excitable personality—out of his Hammond-B3 than eight
seasons of American Idol contestants combined.
lyricist nor a singer, Booker T. still has a way with an evocative
title. Opener “Pound It Out” does just that, as if banging out sheet
metal. “Warped Sister” sounds truly warped, and in this funky context,
“She Breaks” doesn’t suggest damage so much as it implies dancing. And
then there’s “Hey Ya” which isn’t Booker T.’s composition—though it may
as well be now. He and the band distill the OutKast staple to its most
basic stuttering melody, fill it with some warm organ chords, unfurl a
killer guitar riff and have a blast. Stinky? Maybe. Funky? Hell yeah.