Far be it for anyone to suggest that a pop-soul pioneer such as Booker T. Jones should limit the stylistic scope of his music. Having become so identifiable with a distinctive instrument like the Hammond B3 organ over the past five decades has to have made him eager to take a stab at a new sound. Trouble is, stretching out isn’t really Jones’ forte. His performance last night at the new Mercury Ballroom in Louisville underscored that fact.
When the two hour-plus performance addressed the earliest and most recent chapters of his career – specifically, his gloriously cool instrumental soul music with Booker T. and the MGs in the ‘60s and a trio of fine comeback albums that began with 2009’s Potato Hole – the evening was a pure delight.
Looking far younger than his age (69), Jones remains the epitome of taste behind the keys of the B3. Much of that comes from creating clean, soulful grooves out of relatively simple melodies. His classic Green Onions, which was dispensed with six songs into the show, stood as an obvious example. But so did Jones’ 1968 arrangement of Dominic Frontiere’s theme to the Spaghetti Western Hang ‘Em High, which made use of a single melody repeated with a different B3 texture and shading but without any alteration of tempo.
Along the same lines was the show opening Harlem House (from 2011’s The Road to Memphis, the second installment in the comeback trilogy), which let the melody expand and swell as the tune proceeded with Jones’ neatly orchestrated solo. Ditto for a luscious cover of The Rascals’ Groovin’ (fashioned after the MGs’ 1967 version) that basked in silky, lyrical warmth.
But as the performance led to a brief and unanticipated intermission, Jones left the B3 to play guitar and add vocals to an array of cover tunes that became steadily more formulaic. Jones is a capable but unremarkable rhythm guitarist and singer, judging by last night’s performance. Some of the covers he interpreted related directly to his career, like the Albert King blues favorite Born Under a Bad Sign, which Jones co-wrote and recorded. Others didn’t at all, like a sluggish, static take on Purple Rain. The covers parade was especially ill-timed, too. With Thunder Over Louisville starting just a few blocks away, the audience began to thin. By the time Jones returned to the B3, as much as one-third of the crowd had bailed on the show.
What a shame. Jones has fashioned a masterful, profoundly recognizable sound over the years and a fine recording catalogue to go with it. While he has every right artistically to stray from those sounds and songs, most of his detours last night were lessons in selling himself short.