CD Review of Potato Hole by Booker T
Booker T: Potato Hole
Recommended if you like
Drive-By Truckers, Neil Young,
Otis Redding
Booker T: Potato Hole

Reviewed by Mojo Flucke, PhD


he great college basketball coach Rick Pitino ran into some difficulties coaching pro ball in Boston. Before he up and quit on the Celtics in a cesspool of failure, he unleashed one memorable, frustrated rant on the members of the media assigned to cover the team after they'd pushed him a little too far about when they should expect the winning to start again: "Larry Bird is not walking through that door. Kevin McHale is not walking through that door. Robert Parish is not walking through that door. And if you expect them to walk through the door, they're going to be gray and old."

That quote's used routinely as a sports metaphor, 10 years later. When your heroes retire and your team falls on fallow times, you can only keep playing the players you got.

Booker T. Jones is an American musical icon, with soul music running through his veins. He and his Hammond organs (he played an M-3 for a long time before he stepped up to the more legendary gospel B-3 warhorse) helped sculpt the Memphis sound, as he and his MG compadres not only made their own records but backed the greatest hits of Sam and Dave, Otis Redding, Albert King, Carla Thomas, and a blue million others. He didn't just capitalize on soul's popularity, he was one of the programmers, architects, and builders of the genre. Little-known fact: Although he was the king of the keyboards, Jones also played horns and guitar on many Stax records.

Soul diehards, to appreciate his new record, you gotta make peace with one thing: Donald "Duck" Dunn, Steve Cropper, and the late Al Jackson Jr. are not walking through that door. If you're OK with that, keep reading. If not, just bust out your old copies of "Soul Dressing" and "Hip Hug-Her" and we'll understand. There's something about perfect old records that still sound perfect today that makes us cling and not let go. Completely forgivable. Run along, now.

Booker T

Now for the rest of us. Jones was young when he hit it with "Green Onions" in 1962. To put that into perspective, he's only 14 years older than Robert Smith of the Cure, who turned 50 on April 22. At 64, he is indeed gray and old, but the thing about this great musician is that he always knew how to fit into an ensemble, and how to stretch what he had done before into something new the next time around. That's how he and the MGs ended up making McLemore Avenue, consisting of southern-fried Abbey Road covers. He could cover any old hit song and make it his own, with his Hammond doing the lead vocals and its spinning Leslie speaker adding the soul textures that no other instrumentalist could inject into his sound.

For Potato Hole, he enlisted Neil Young—yes, that Neil Young, who guests on someone else's record every 10th blue moon or so—to play on nine of the 10 songs, with members of the Drive-By Truckers rounding out the band for Jones' first new album in two decades. How sweet it is to get these guys together in a country-rock soul jam: To the uninitiated, the Drive-By Truckers might sound more closely related to Lynyrd Skynyrd, whose "Sweet Home Alabama" was an answer to Young's angry "Southern Man." But that's wrong. The connection is through Truckers' cofounder Patterson Hood, who is the son of David Hood, bassist for Booker T & the MGs' counterpart house band at Muscle Shoals. That Alabama studio was another soul epicenter on the scale of Memphis and Motown: 'Twas there where mother Aretha cut some great records and a fistful of Stax/Atlantic soul staples—such as The Staple Singers—made a fistful of soul's greatest hits.

Potato Hole sounds exactly like what you'd think such a musical assemblage would make: Not as clean as the 1960s MGs, and possessing some added (but not at all unwelcome) country twang. We all know Neil Young is all about the fuzz and wail. It's different, but it's great stuff: The opener "Pound It Out" starts with those telltale smooth, clicky organ notes, and bam! Young crashes down the door with his typical sturm und drang, and the jam gets moving. For a short 43-plus minutes, the rhythm section basically gets out of the way, and these two titans throw down a grunge-updated MGs record. One thing old-time fans might expect would be a revue of contemporary soul/hip-hop hits, tricked out Booker style. Maybe some Beyonce, some hip-hop, or maybe even some Mariah or Madonna melodies? Not this time. They're mostly well-developed, original instrumental jams, OutKast's "Hey Ya" and Tom Waits' "Get Behind the Mule" being the exceptions. "Space City" is a Drive-By Truckers cut, but it's not a traditional MGs-style cover like they would do back in the day when they opted for big pop singles like "Downtown," "Never My Love," or "You Keep Me Hanging On."

As he did in his salad days, Jones lithely moves in and out from lead to rhythm accompaniment, loud and soft, smooth or dripping with vibrato—whatever these next few bars need. Where "Pound It Out" establishes an edgy tone, it's followed up with "She Breaks," a gentler midtempo country rocker, and the songs are pretty well mixed up the rest of the way. "Native New Yorker" is one of the heaviest numbers Jones has ever done—it will startle the old folks who grew up listening to "Chinese Checkers"—yet that familiar organ sound dominates, as Jones uses the high register and fires up the Leslie to cut through the layer of rock rhythm lines laid down by Young and the band. Some of the tracks, like "Nan," veer into ethereal, ambient jam-band territory and would be most at home played from the stage at a Georgia tie-dye festival. You can just hear some live act developing the percussive outro to the hard-funkin' title cut into a 20-minute jam unto itself.

Hearing the record unfold is refreshing; Booker and Stax were so inclusive and celebratory in their music back in the day. To hear Jones expanding his musical horizons at 64—and not making some sort of half-baked nostalgia piece loaded with cheesy covers—gives all middle-aged guys hope that we won't turn into crotchety old dudes ourselves when we get to be his age. Musically, Potato Hole is so different, so new. But in one regard it's just like the old days: Jones is an innate collaborator, and even when the record has his name on the front, he uses subtlety and the spaces between notes to make his musical point—paradoxically, shining the spotlight on his bandmates. You can take the impresario out of the Stax studio, but you'll never take the Stax out of the impresario. Bless you, man – keep making your soul music, how sweet it is.

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