Booker T. Jones’s alarmingly raucous new record, Potato Hole, is a more vital component of your next barbecue than the meat, the booze, and the other people. As our globally warmed nation wantonly disavows spring as a concept altogether and leaps directly from winter to summer, the sexagenarian Hammond B3 virtuoso returns to cool us off with what he proudly, defiantly calls “a straight-up rock record,” backed in alternately surly and exuberant fashion by both Southern-rock titans the Drive-By Truckers and, just for the hell of it, honorary Southern-rock titan Neil Young. They swing, they slither, they bash around, they take a shot at “Hey Ya.” In just a few years, the absurdly infectious pop-soul smash “Green Onions,” brought to you by beloved Stax Records house band Booker T. and the MGs, will be a half-century old. Dollars to doughnuts that, at this exact moment, he still feels (and sounds) younger than you do.
We join him now in a tiny Late Night With Jimmy Fallon dressing room, on the back end of a three-night run sitting in with house band the Roots. (“They’re so organic. And cerebral, too. So funky, too.”) He has no idea how many songs he’s learned in the past 72 hours. A lot. (From Roots drummer/mastermind ?uestlove’s Twitter: “Teaching Booker T the chords to . . . F@#$ Tha Police.”) “That’s good for my mind,” Booker explains, softly and sweetly. “Teaches me to soak stuff up really fast like that. They do that every day. And it’s great. I do crossword puzzles and stuff, so I like to exercise my mind.”
His tastes these days are remarkably omnivorous: “I listen to everything from the Killers to Beethoven.” Potato Hole betrays the direct influence of neither. (Too bad.) But from the first moments of “Pound It Out”—a lithe, lively organ line cheerfully interrupted by crunching power chords—it’s got more fire and grit than you were perhaps expecting. Even a slower, calmer quasi-ballad like “Native New Yorker” rumbles forth with great purpose, Booker’s B3 sketching out a buoyant melody with so much verve and personality that it almost sounds alive, like an actual lead singer singing actual words. “I started writing, with this album, in a different way: I was holding an image in mind—not a complete story, but very often a scene,” he says. “I was writing music to a scene. And so, very often, there were words in mind. That’s where the titles came from. That’s what I was singing in my head as I wrote the chords.”
He croons the melody’s first five notes: “Na-tive New York-er. This is a scene where the guy leaves work and he ends up in his apartment. He’s on the 80th floor or something, with the windows open, and you can see him—you know, sometimes you can see across buildings? And you see the guy in there—he lets his hair down when he’s home—and he’s playing air guitar. And that’s the song that he’s singing. He’s from here, and he’s been here for a while, and there’s so many emotional changes going on in this town, and so there’s a big, solid—I don’t know what to call it—it’s an aura here in New York. It’s just a huge image in my mind, the city. Coming here right after 9/11, when there was nobody in the airport—I flew from San Francisco to New York on a basically empty airplane—and going right over there and seeing, you know, what happened, they took us through and showed us what had happened. Just the realization of what an important city this is to the world, and to the country—just made me want to write a song.”
Booker wrote most of Potato Hole on a Fender Strat, self-evident in the craggy bombast of “Warped Sister” and even the stunt “Hey Ya” cover, wherein his B3 deftly replicates Andre 3000’s stuttering vocals, but the ensemble’s four guitarists (three in the Truckers, plus Neil) expertly encircle and eventually overwhelm him. “He was a total pleasure to work with,” raves DBT co-frontman Patterson Hood. “An amazing talent. As great as you’d think he would be, he’s even better. If you do something he likes, you get the smile, and the whole room lights up.” Whether backing Otis Redding at the Monterey International Pop Festival in 1967 or Brooklyn retro-soul queen Sharon Jones at Rockefeller Park in 2007, he’s a team player, a top-shelf vodka that mixes sublimely with whatever you’d care to pour in with it.
Even Mickey Factz. Sitting in last Tuesday night at one of the Roots’ frequent Highline Ballroom jams, a bewildering parade of excitable rappers, r&b screamers, and random effluvia, Booker’s effect is immediate, sharpening and tightening a wayward, overly smooth soul jam merely by walking onstage. For his trouble, he gets one showcase number: a vicious intermingling of the sultry 1971 MGs’ hit “Melting Pot” and Kool G Rap’s golden-era burner “Men at Work,” with only a brief, skittering solo for himself, sticking mostly to the shadows—point-guard work, doling out assists, making everyone else on the court better. He could do this for another 50 years. He’d better.
Booker T. plays Joe’s Pub June 10