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REVIEW: Soultastic Booker T. Jones (The Dakota)

Soul legend Booker T. Jones performed last night at The Dakota in Minneapolis, MN.

The label “living legend” is often just a cliché or a vast overstatement, but this was not the case last night at The Dakota. After all, the featured performer, Booker T. Jones, was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame 30 years ago, as part of the group Booker T & the M.G.s. He had a hit song as far back as 1962, when he wrote and performed “Green Onions”, which peaked at No. 3 on the Billboard Charts – not bad for just 17 years of age. Sixty years later, “Green Onions” is still getting played.

Besides many other important songs of their own, Booker T. & the M.G.s played an integral role as the racially mixed house band of Stax Records in Memphis. This made them analogous to the racially mixed house band at Motown Records in Detroit – The Funk Brothers – who were featured in the 2002 documentary Standing in the Shadow of Motown.

Booker T. Jones seems to know everyone in the music business and – as writer, musician, or producer – has been central to many of its important developments.  In interviews, he has recounted how, at the age of 12, he once accompanied Gospel legend Mahalia Jackson on piano when she was singing at a Memphis Sunday Afternoon Tea.  At Stax Records, Booker T. worked with acts ranging from Otis Redding (who first arrived at Stax as a valet for Johnny Jenkins and the Pinetoppers), Wilson Pickett, Sam and Dave, Stephen Stills, and Bill Withers. Over the years, he came to work with an even broader range of musicians, including the Staple Singers, Neil Young, Bob Dylan, and Willie Nelson.

Booker T. had many other connections to relate on Thursday night.  During the course of the evening, we heard about having been asked, with co-writer William Bell, to write a song for Albert King on short notice. That song turned out to be the now-classic Blues song “Born Under a Bad Sign”, subsequently recorded by everyone from Big Mama Thornton to Jimi Hendrix to Cream to Etta James, as well as by Booker T. himself, in his most recent album Note by Note (2019).  We also heard about Booker T., when living in California, being visited by a near-neighbor, Bob Dylan, who wanted to hear Booker T. play the electric guitar, and wanted Booker T.’s views about a song Dylan had just written. That song turned out to be “Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door,” which Booker T. would record on Try and Love Again (1978).  And we heard of Booker T. borrowing his friend Jimmy Fallon’s studio to record a cover of Lauryn Hill’s “Everything is Everything,” for The Road from Memphis (2011).

Thursday night’s lineup at The Dakota: bassist Melvin Bannon, Jr., guitarist Dylan Jones, percussionist Ty Dennis, and songwriter-producer-keyboardist Booker T. Jones.

All of these songs were represented in last night’s set list, but a majority of pieces came from the “& the M.G.s” albums from the 1960s and early 1970s. Along with “Green Onions”, there was “Hang ’Em High”, “Hip Hug-Her”, “Soul Dressing”, a cover of “Summertime” (done this evening in a sort of power rock ballad style), “Melting Pot”, “Soul Limbo” (since taken up as the BBC Cricket broadcast theme), “Time is Tight”, and “When Something is Wrong with My Baby”

Booker T. is famously multi-talented as a musician, playing not only the Hammond B3 organ for which he is best known, but also guitar, clarinet, E-flat baritone sax, B-flat trombone, and even tuba and euphonium.  For this evening, he stayed mostly alongside the Hammond, but he did come out front, electric guitar in hand, for a few of the numbers.  And he had very able support by his band: the sometimes-furious guitar playing of Dylan Jones, the funky electric bass of Melvin Bannon, Jr., and the steady foundation of Ty Dennis on percussion.

The enthusiastic Dakota crowd took in every moment by this legendary musician.

Brian Bix