Booker T. Jones – The Road From Memphis

Over the past 4-5 years, there’s been a revival in soul music. Often dubbed neo-soul, the amount of artists and bands that have begun to bring this truly American genre of music back to the ears of the public has been steadily increasing. And with the resurgence of vinyl, more and more music fans are rediscovering the music of the artists of the past. So it was not surprising to find out, back in the spring, that Booker T. Jones, of the infamous Booker T. & the M.G.’s, was put out a new album, called The Road From Memphis. What was surprising, however, was how fresh the music sound, and how great the entire album was.

I have been caught up in this recent revival, not because it’s popular (that’s not my style), but because I grew up listening to a lot of soul and R&B. Thanks to my father, I listened to a lot of Motown when I was younger, and due to his affinity to listening to a Saturday radio program called, Rhythm Revue, on WBGO (Newark, NJ) I was exposed to a lot more soul and R&B. Add to that the music of some movies like The Commitments, The Blues Brothers, and (yes, even) Muppets from Space, and I started to build a musical library of soul and R&B music. So it is not that surprising that I have become a fan of many new bands and artists that play in the same style, as well as discovering the artists that they were influenced by.

I don’t know when I became a fan of Booker T. & the M.G.’s, but it had to be around the time that I really got into The Blues Brothers, since Steve Cropper (guitar) and Donald “Duck” Dunn (bass) were in both bands. I soon discovered that not only were they a great band, but that they were essentially the house band for Stax Records back in the 1960s and 1970s. So that meant that they backed the likes of Otis Redding, Sam & Dave, Wilson Pickett, and many, many others, and were instrumental in creating the sound of Memphis soul. This also meant that Booker T. Jones is not just an amazing organist, he is a musical legend.

However, that didn’t guarantee his new music would be any good.

I first heard about The Road From Memphis on NPR back in March (I think it was on an episode of Fresh Air). I knew he had put out an album a few years ago, called Potato Hole, but for whatever reason I never bought it (I’m actually listening to it as I write, and not a fan – see below), so I didn’t know what to expect. The clips, however, intrigued me (it also helped that Sharon Jones and Yim Yames made cameos). So I went to one of the independent record stores here in Lawrence, KS, and took a listen to the album.

From the moment that the first track, “Walking Papers,” got going, I knew I had to buy the album. After skimming through the rest of the album briefly, I purchased it, and listened to it once I got home. With incredibly funky and tight grooves, and that classic Hammond organ sound shining through on the entire album,, I thought that it was very good.  Now, after months of listening to it, I’ve changed my mind. It’s great.

What I have realized is that the album is not great simply because of the songs, but it is largely due to the fact of who helped put it together.

Booker T.’s backing band is stellar. The lineup includes ?uestlove (drums), “Captain” Kirk Douglas (guitar), and Owen Biddle (bass), all from The Roots, as well as former Funk Brothers guitarist Dennis Coffey, and Orgone percussionist Stewart Killen. That’s a backing band that exudes funk and soul, and it shows on every, single track.  Add in guest vocalists Yim Yames (My Morning Jacket), Sharon Jones (Sharon Jones & the Dap-Kings), Matt Berninger (The National), and the immortal Lou Reed, and you know you’re going to get something great. But the piece de resistance, is the fact that it was recorded and engineered by Gabriel Roth (aka Boscoe Mann), the co-founder of Daptone Records and the band leader of Sharon Jones & the Dap-Kings.

But this may mean absolutely nothing to the casual music fan. So I will explain.

Essentially, Jones has surrounded himself with people who are not only fans of his music, but are students of it. If you’ve heard anything by The Roots, or have seen them on Late Night with Jimmy Fallon, you know that they are deeply influenced by classic R&B, soul, and funk. So having the rhythm section of that band on this album not only enables Booker T. to play in a style he’s used to, but it adds a modernity to the sound. Dennis Coffey, as mentioned previously, was a member of the Funk Brothers, which was the house band for Motown, which not only makes him a legend in his own right, but also a musical peer of Jones. Stewart Killen’s regular band, Orgone, is a neo-soul band, who, like The Roots, are heavily influenced by classic soul and funk music. As for Roth, he has been one of the biggest proponents of the soul revival. His label, Daptone Records, has been a major player on the scene, and his band, Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings, have become fairly well-known, headlining major festivals around the world. To sum it up, these people knew what it meant to make a real soul album.

This totally contrasts what Jones did with his previous solo effort, Potato Hole (which I just finished listening to). On that album, he had the southern-rock group The Drive-By Truckers back him, and the outcome was, in my opinion, less-than-stellar. Booker T. is not a rock organist. He is a soul organist, which is why The Road From Memphis completely outshines its predecessor.

If you are a fan of classic soul, funk, and/or R&B music, and even hip-hop, you should listen to The Road From Memphis, by Booker T. Jones. But don’t expect a classic Booker T. & the M.G.’s record. Though it has everything that you’d expect from Booker T., it also has the feeling of being fresh and relevant. It’s a modern soul record, made for the 21st Century. Just as the liner notes allude to, this is not revisiting past work, it builds on it, and, boy, does it sound good.

(I recommend “Walking Papers,” “Down in Memphis,” “Everything is Everything” {a Lauryn Hill cover}, and “Representing Memphis.” Here’s a behind the scenes look at the album.)

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One thought on “Booker T. Jones – The Road From Memphis

  1. Pingback: My Favorite Albums of 2011 | The All New Cheap Music Blog

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