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Copyright Nick Morgan and crew

Concert Review by Nick Morgan
Booker T Jones

Bush Hall, Shepherd’s Bush, London
July 30th 2009

Have you ever wondered what it might be like to be trapped in aspic somewhat like a lark’s tongue, suspended against your will in a particular moment of time not of your choosing, unable to move forward, unable to go back? Can’t be pleasant, can it? Almost like being in a coma. And yet that’s where some people seem to wish to preserve legendary Hammond organ player Booker T Jones, if their reactions to his new album, Potato Hole, are anything to go by. For these critics, Booker T isn’t allowed to sully the memory of the famed sixties house band for Stax records that he shared with Steve Cropper, Donald ‘Duck’ Dunn and the late Al Jackson, with ‘new’ music, let alone with the very contemporary heavy blues sound that marks the new offering. The fact that he collaborated with the feisty guitar-driven Drive By Truckers on the album has earned the scorn of others (who nonetheless choose not to criticise the presence of Neil Young’s guitar on some of the recordings), the choice of covers of songs like Outkast’s ‘Hey ya’, derision. According to these views, Jones’s fate should be to spend the rest of his life honouring that relatively brief period of his career, joining in regular reunions with the remnants of the band. Now don’t get me wrong on this point; when we saw Mr Jones and the remaining MGs in London a few years ago it was both a memorable and moving experience (and the show Steve Cropper put on at last year’s Rhythm Festival was pretty special too), exhibiting the real timeless quality of much of the MGs’ work. But surely all that that shouldn’t mean that Booker can’t, as people like to say these days, ‘move on’, let alone move forward?
Booker T Jones Ask the audience in the tiny (and very sold-out) Bush Hall, that hidden gem of music hall architecture, a rare oasis in the desert of Uxbridge Road (another is the wonderful Esarn Kheaw restaurant) in west London. I guess only about half had heard the new album (judging by the number queuing to buy it at the end of the show), and had showed up more on the basis of past reputation than recent work. But Mr Jones and his marvellous band (not on this night, as on most of his tour, the Drive by Truckers) converted almost everyone. The withering looks of contempt that were shot at one lonesome soul who shouted “Play some of the old songs” about half way through, said it all. Not that the ‘old songs’ didn’t get an airing: the set was divided about forty/sixty in favour of older material, not all of it from the MGs.
“Here’s a song I wrote for Albert King”, says Jones, as the band break into ‘Born under a bad sign’; the passion with which this was played led to an enforced guitar string change off-stage (no guitar technicians tonight, it’s every man for himself) during which he softly growled his way through ‘Dock of the bay’ (composed by MG Cropper and Otis Redding).
Booker T Jones
It has to be said that what set this performance apart, bringing the new material to life and resuscitating some of the old stuff too, was Jones’s band: two gun-slinging guitarists and a tighter-than-time rhythm section. Marc Ford, allegedly fired by the Black Crowes for excessive drug-taking back in the late 1990s, and now refusing to tour with them again because ‘he fears for his sobriety’ in their presence, owned the centre of the stage, spitting out riffs on his Hofner with an unexpected intensity. His partner, former Fabulous Thunderbird Troy Gonyea, largely confined subtlety to the trash-bin and played with a brutal dexterity; the two of them egged each other on as the night progressed (reaching a climax with a suitably epic version of ‘Hang ‘em high’) under the watchful eye of Mr Jones, himself no mean guitarist ("I became a keyboardist by default, because 'Green Onions' was a hit. But in my heart and soul I was always a guitarist”). Another former Thunderbird (and former Nightcat), Ronnie James Weber, played low-slung bass to Darian Gray’s enthusiastic and perfectly timed drumming. Add to this Mr Jones’s characteristic incisive, yet often understated Hammond organ, and you have one of the most compelling bands we’ve seen all year, far exceeding our expectations for the night.
And of course the ear-splitting bonus was to catch an act like this in such an intimate venue, where you could see the band warming and responding to the huge excitement and enthusiasm of the audience. They went on to play a set at the Cambridge Folk Festival, where, said a reviewer, they “opted for bombast over communication”.
Well, that’s ‘folkies’ for you, missing the point yet again. I checked in my dictionary, and for the record, there was no padding or stuffing of any nature in this gig (nor, I should add, in the soft-spoken Booker T who kindly took time at the end of the gig to speak with fans). This was blues and soul music of the best possible sort, from the heart, and proving in the case of Mr Jones, that there’s a lot of life left in the old dog yet. - Nick Morgan (photographs by Kate)

Listen: Marc Ford on MySpace
Booker T Jones on MySpace
Booker T Jones with Marc Ford in London - 30 July 09 (youtube)

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