Booker T. Jones brings his music and his legacy to Louisville

Contributing Music WriterApril 10, 2014 

Booker T. Jones comes to the newly opened Mercury Ballroom.

PIPER FERGUSON

  • The week that was

    Dublin Guitar Quartet at the Norton Center for the Arts in Danville: The breadth of the repertoire running through this performance suggested something of a global sprint. The concert touched on composers from Estonia, Hungary, Cuba and the United States. Curiously, the purely Irish entries by guitarist David Flynn (a DGQ alum) and the instrumental rock troupe The Redneck Manifesto proved to be the least indigenous-sounding items in the program.

    What this technically dazzling but sometimes stylistically stymied performance wound up emphasizing wasn't so much a set of geographical references. Instead, it better approximated a study in how contemporary classical structures — especially minimalist and post-minimalist designs that explored interlocking, cyclical melodies and the often astonishing harmonies they created — transferred to a guitar ensemble

    Two fine examples were a pair of abridged Philip Glass string quartets: two movements from Company and three from the sublime (and, given its absence of mention in the program notes, unplanned) Mishima. Both wonderfully captured the haunting lyrical splendor that Glass weaves out of sparse, repetitive melodic variations. The quartet discovered the works' subtle drama, too — right down to the light counterpoint that seemed to make the music float in mid-air.

    The Redneck Manifesto's brief Soundscapes Over Landscapes was less intricate but just as musically involving. The quartet let the tune unravel in sheets of melodic fancy before acoustic power chords and the closing percussive slaps by three of the group's four players on the bases of their instruments summoned the piece's rockish but curiously non-Irish-sounding foundation.

    From another world entirely came Steve Reich's Electric Counterpoint, a three-part composition for 12 guitars performed on solo electric guitar by the DGQ's Pat Brunnock and a well-orchestrated tape of accompanists. As a technical exercise, it was astonishing, with Brunnock working in and around a symphony of clipped, stuttering melodies. So deft was his execution that during the first half of the 15-minute piece, distinguishing the live music from the recorded support was almost impossible. That created some icy stagnancy, though, until the criss-crossing melodies finally grew together, as they did in the more organically presented Glass pieces, allowing harmony to win out.

Booker T. Jones

7 p.m. April 12 at the Mercury Ballroom, 611 S. Fourth St. in Louisville. $28.50. (800) 745-3000.

If you were to view the cumulative power and influence of the soul music that soared out of the South during the 1960s as a hurricane, then Booker T. Jones would be sitting in the eye of the storm.

As a producer, a songwriter, a bandleader and, most of all, a pioneering instrumentalist of the Hammond B3 organ, Jones solidified the groove behind a host of star acts for the Stax label in Memphis (Jones' hometown) while designing spaciously cool music of his own as leader of Booker T. and The MGs. The latter established Jones' extraordinary brand of serene R&B lyricism as far back as 1962 with the career-defining instrumental Green Onions.

Currently in the midst of a career renaissance, Jones, who turns 80 later this year, is returning to Kentucky for a rare regional performance. He will headline a Saturday concert at the Mercury Ballroom, the House of Blues-operated music club that opened last week in Louisville a few doors down from the Palace Theatre.

The golden age of Stax and The MGs ended in the early '70s, but Jones' inspiration in numerous fields of contemporary music never fully dissipated. Perhaps one of his strongest and most unexpected comebacks was in 1978, when he produced and played on what remains Willie Nelson's most popular crossover album, the pop and soul standards collection Stardust.

Jones' solo career was established during the '80s. Several of his albums from this period — the best being 1989's The Runaway — sound a touch dated today because of synthesized tracks that were standard-pop issue at the time, but the luscious cool of Jones' B3 playing bears the stamp of pure organic soul.

After his induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1992, Jones and the MGs barnstormed through North America and Europe as a surprise backup band for Neil Young. Their collaborative concerts often strayed from the MGs' sterling soul foundation to match the garage-rock immediacy of Young's music with Crazy Horse.

He continued to tour with the MGs on occasion during the ensuing decades, but Jones' true solo profile took hold with a pair of stylistically varied records for the Anti label: 2009's Potato Hole (a rockish, elemental outing with Drive By Truckers, which took him to Bonnaroo for the first time) and 2012's The Road From Memphis (a more groove-centric session with members of The Roots). Both albums won Grammy Awards.

That brings us to Sound the Alarm, the 2013 recording that returned Jones to a reconstituted Stax with an all-star roster of pop, soul, blues and rock stylists that included Mayer Hawthorne, Gary Clark Jr. and Anthony Hamilton. The album presented a cross-generational summit of soul references, from the full, ultra-modern charge of the Avila Brothers-produced title tune (with Hawthorne) to lean, organic, Jones-produced sessions with soul revivalists Vintage Trouble (the jointly composed Your Love is No Love) and his 22-year-old son, guitarist Ted Jones (Father Son Blues).

Not surprisingly, the tunes from Sound the Alarm that best reflect Jones' sleek soul authority are a pair of instrumentals, Fun and Feel Good — tunes that are as succinctly celebratory as their titles suggest.

Need further proof of Jones's lasting musical reach? Then listen to the new album by The Robert Cray Band, In My Soul, which was released last week. It boasts an instrumental called Hip Tight Onions, an amalgamation of three classic MGs titles (Hip Hug-Her, Time is Tight and, of course, Green Onions) that salutes one of the most regal and joyous soul sounds of any age.

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