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.