Booker T

Booker T
Live Review

By Bill Copeland
June 2009

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Man, oh man, can Booker T put on a great show. The legendary R&B keyboardist who fronted and directed Stax Recordsí house band can still muster up every bit of his early 1960s energy. Booker Tís live band is made up of some of the countryís best support players, and, he and his men whipped up a lot of good music from his new disc.

Playing Tupelo Music Hall in Londonderry, N.H. recently, Booker T highlighted many songs from Potato Hole, his first solo album in 20 years.

Booker T has married his traditional soul sound to edgy rock guitars from the 1970s and beyond to come up with a monster sound. He can still fill the room with merely a sustained chord. But now he has musical thunder and canons going on around him.

The soul man opened with disc opener “Pound It Out,” an organ riff rocker that showed his playing still remains fresh and free. His organ swirls danced around inside of the space opened up by his rhythm section, and made a perfect counterpoint with lead guitarist Rick Holmstrom. Booker T continues to make music that is clever and exciting.

“She Breaks,” also from the new record, is a bopping treat for the ears with a rolling bass intro, and another new song, “Warped Sister,” was a graceful execution of soulful organ riffs and fuzzy guitar. Drummer Darian Gray kept it humming with a fun backbeat.

It was inspiring to see Booker T perform “Green Onion” with enough vigor and aplomb to make you think he wrote it yesterday instead of 40-plus years ago when he was only 16. Fat chords and exciting riffs mark this classic from yesteryear and Booker T played between the spaces, letting the energy unfold at its own pace.

“Reunion Time” from the new release found Booker T at a subtle and breezy approach and let him shine in a different tempo and dynamic. “Reunion Time,” he said, is about family reunions and, like a classical composer, his music creates the feeling that lets you envision, the songís setting - in this case a large group of people socializing on a front yard on a nice spring day.

To display more of his blues feel, Booker T dipped back into his Stax catalogue for “Born Under a Bad Sign,” a tune he co-wrote for Albert King, the most solidly blues artist in the Stax company. Booker T played this blues with a groove and he sang in a rich timbre of experience.

Title track, “Potato Hole,” a term for hidden places on slave ships where slaves hid food during their voyage to the new world, had the most rocking sound. I found myself wondering if Booker T had spent a lot of time listening to classic rock when he was writing this new music. The guitars are more edgy and the drums are more driving than at any other point in his career. Yet, he chords his way through the fuzzy, distorted guitars and thumping rhythm section with a traditional R&B feel.

New tune “Native New Yorker” actually opens with power chords and it made me wonder which market Booker T can appeal to. Will this music go over well with fans of 60s R&B? Will it be received by fans of classic rock? Booker T likely has realized what everyone but the radio programmers understand. Listeners have a taste for all kinds of music, and Booker T has blended two different genres that grew up side by side in a time when radio was not as formatted as it is today.

Late 60s hit “Melting Pot,” with its funky guitar riffs and rambunctious mix of rock and soul, made me wish there was a dance floor at Tupelo. All of Booker Tís 60s music was originally recorded to dance to. Yet, the listening room atmosphere works well now because his music has become like fine wine that must be savored carefully and slowly.

Opening act Matthew Stubbs Band played a louder, more palpable set than when they headlined Tupelo last September. This action packed four-piece, with “Sax” Gordon Beadle blowing tenor, built up each of their original tunes into guitar-saxophone monster matches. Songs from Stubbsí 2008 Soul Bender, and tunes penned even more recently, showed this young band can pull off many musical feats within the framework of American roots styles.

A big guitar sound made recent tune “Uncle Sunny” come alive, and “Rivelliís Mood” showed off Stubbsí use of dynamics. Stubbs was the perfect opener for Booker T.

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