review by Jim Beckmann
photos by Christopher Nelson
Monday night at The Triple Door, Stax recording legend Booker T. Jones returned to Seattle to promote Potato Hole, his first solo effort in a couple of decades. Although backed on the album by Neil Young and the Drive-By Truckers, Booker T brought along a different crack team of musicians: Troy Gonyea and Rick Holmstrom (of Mavis Staples’ band) on guitar, Ron Weber on bass, and Darian Gray on drums. With their combined skill, the group performed from the entire catalog of Booker T, typically alternating visually suggestive new songs like “Warp Sister” with rollicking older classics like “Green Onions.”
Throughout the night, the band members paid due deference to the master organ player while he sat almost royally before his signature Hammond B-3 and introduced each song with a bit of story behind it. Assigning any kind of meaning to instrumental music is ridiculously subjective, but Booker T spoke clearly to the images inspiring his new songs so it was like walking through his memories as he performed “Reunion Time” or spying on the Wall Street stockbroker jamming out an airguitar during “Native New Yorker.” He sang only twice during the set — on his song for Albert King, “Born Under a Bad Sign,” and the encore of Mavis Staples’ “I’ll Take You There” — and although his surprisingly confident signing left you wanting to hear more, that’s hardly what you go to a Booker T show for. His musical genius, going back to his house band days at Stax Records, has always lied in the voices of the melody, and his recent instrumental interpretation of OutKast’s “Hey Ya,” composed off of Andre 3000’s lyrics, proved that he still had the chops.
It’s hard to critique a Booker T show — so rare and masterful — but at times it seemed like the band members were a bit too deferential and holding back to let Booker T’s performance rather than let his music take center stage. While he’s a laid back performer by nature, his songs aren’t necessarily so, and it would have been nice to see more jams. Not that Gonyea and Holmstrom didn’t have their moments. Gonyea’s dirty, distorted riffing, obviously pointing to Neil Young’s influence in the album, brought some needed punch to the set, as during the organ-to-guitar call and response of “Potato Hole,” in which all the flourishes were his. And Holmstrom vigorously choked the blues out of his guitar, particularly on “Bad Sign” and the 70’s epic “Melting Pot,” the latter being one of the two songs that showed the band really grooving as a unit (the other being main set closer, “Time Is Tight”). These are minor grievances, though, as everyone on stage, including the much-tattooed Weber on bass, holding his instrument at a constant 70 degrees and almost imperceptibly tickling the strings down low, and Darian Gray, almost buried in the back behind his drumkit but able to pound his way out when the moment required. Besides, there’s no better location in Seattle than The Triple Door for such a special moment, and Booker T’s fans came out in force to pack every booth and table in the joint. Hopefully, we won’t have to wait another 20 years for more material, as the 65 year-old continues to write music as vibrant and fresh as he appears.