We arrive at The Poisson Rouge, an understated venue in lower Manhattan, way earlier than required, but I guess excitement can have that effect on people, even those who generally arrive embarrassingly late by nature. It’s an intimate venue and feels very (charmingly) cave-like. Forgetting I was in the US, I did not bring any ID so the enormous bouncer at the door marked the outside of both of my hands with massive red crosses as if I was a leper to indicate to the bartenders not to serve me (Ah America). On the bright side, he did let me in and in any case, booze has never really been my poison of choice for soul music (or any music really).
The show begins with Booker T. Jones reading a passage from his recently published memoir Time is Tight – My Life Note by Note. It was quite shocking how clear and beautiful Mr. Jones’ writing was, and even more shocking was how well spoken the 75 year old remains. I guess living and breathing soul music for so long keeps you young like that.
He told stories of his early memories of music (first one coming at the age of 4) and tales of long nights recording with fellow legends like Ottis Redding and Sam & Jones to name a couple. He touched on Dr. Martin Luther King’s tragic killing at the Lorraine Motel (which was home to many of these recording sessions) and the effect that had on music (and everything else) at the time, in his words “the bullet really hit me”. I was already tearing up like a little child with a skinned knee and not a single note had been played.
He opens up to a few questions from the crowd, which to my surprise was almost entirely grey haired. I had obviously expected an older crowd – Jones recorded the majority of his most popular music with the M.G.s in the 60s and 70s but the average age must have been at least 70, there was less than a handful of young listeners in the crowd. It made me a little sad to see so few appreciators of this soul legend coming out to experience it live.
So I put together a quick little playlist of some of my favourite Booker T. Jones tracks to spread the love – have a listen – you and your soul will thank me.
Jones then takes a seat at the Hammond B3 Organ, the instrument synonymous with Booker T, and that beautiful sound of his fills the room. They open with the theme song to Hang ‘Em High. Mid song he introduces the rest of the band: a guitarist (his son), a bass player and a drummer. That’s it, nice and simple.
They make a smooth transition to their rendition of Born Under a Bad Sign followed by a soulful take on Gershwin’s Summertime. After back to back Jones Sr. and Jones Jr. solos, you could make out a “That was sweet!” from a lady in the crowd dancing her ass off (she must have been at least 80).
Jones cracks a joke about being a happy man, with a pearly white grin as he switches to a guitar. He begins to tell a story as he feels this new instrument out. A guest vocalist enters the stage in a shiny yellow dress for B-A-B-Y before they move to Hip Hug-Her for which the crowd could not contain their excitement. The drummer spits an excellent rap verse which paired insanely well with the funky soul sound and visibly upped the crowd’s collective heart rate.
Riding this increase in tempo, they move to Melting Pot (which was originally recorded in, you guessed it NYC) concluding with quite the bass solo. Up next came another Jones Jr. solo, where he shreds to Blue Jeans Blues before moving to the iconic (and my personal favourite) Green Onions. Just a quick word on this one: Green Onions is easily one of the most beloved instrumental soul songs ever recorded, and just so happens to have been recorded by Jones & the M.G.s in their first album. Jones wrote the organ line that defines the song when he was just 17. Yeah that’s right, 17! I don’t know what you were up to at 17, but I can sum up my experience to dedo no cu e gritaria – a common Brazilian expression which literally translates to: ‘thumb up your ass and loud screaming commotion’.
Jones and crew slow it down just for a minute for Maybe I Need Saving from their latest album, namesake to his memoir before playing a phenomenal rendition of Purple Rain which would have made Prince (and his greatest fan Cuzomano) proud. Obviously, the crowd – myself included, could not help but sing along. They conclude with Soul Limbo, the track the Brits adopted as their cricket anthem and Time is Tight, which was originally recorded in 1968 for the film Up Tight. Quite the finish to an excellent show.
As we leave and head over to the Comedy Cellar to try to catch the last standup act of the evening, I reflect on the experience we just had. While it was not the sweaty, eardrum damaging, pupil dilating affair that more contemporary live music events tend to be these days, it was epic nonetheless. Instead of looking for an afterparty, I found myself on Amazon purchasing Jones’ memoir and could not help but be consumed by the thought that adulthood had finally caught up to me, despite all my efforts. But life crisis aside, Booker T. Jones is a living legend at the end of the day, one that continues to perform and record new music. There are not so many like him left – so if you get the chance, please do yourself a favour and go see him live. You and your soul will thank me once again.