Booker T. Jones – The Road from Memphis (2011)

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His name is linked forever with the town, and the sound, of Memphis. But Booker T. Jones’ influence moves beyond Beale, into hip hop and today’s rhythm-and-blues — something that’s underscored on The Road from Memphis, co-produced by The Roots drummer/bandleader ?uestlove and out today on Anti- Records.

Not that Jones, a three-time Grammy winner and Rock and Roll Hall of Famer, doesn’t stake his claim to all that is fonky. “Walking Papers” and “The Vamp” boast a Meters-level greasy grind, while “The Hive” sounds like an outtake from a sizzling James Brown session. Jones even sings a bit, lending a gruff soulfulness to “Down in Memphis.” But the album isn’t content with confirming his fidelity to such things, so much as showing how the sound that Jones helped shape in the 1960s has continued to resonate across the decades.

“Progress,” with a guest vocal by Jim James of My Morning Jacket, has this cunning modern pop sheen. His take on Lauryn Hill’s “Everything is Everything” stutters and stomps like a radio-ready R&B side — a vibe that’s fully explored in the lithe, urbane “Representing Memphis,” featuring soul diva Sharon Jones and Matt Berninger of the National. “Regulation Time” sounds like a hip update of one of those saloon-shaking jazz sides that used to hit on pop radio, kind of “The ‘In’ Crowd” for a new generation. As you might expect from a record that covers so much ground, there are a few bumps along the way. Lou Reed is a bit out of place. But, somehow, Biz Markie (heard hound-dog howling through his own 1989 hit “Just a Friend”) is not.

Credit Booker T., an affable, versatile performer who first came to fame as leader of the legendary MGs, Stax Records’ house band for projects by everyone from Rufus to Otis Redding to Sam and Dave. Through it all on The Road from Memphis, you hear his voice-like interpretive organ playing — no where more so that during Jones’ take on Gnarls Barkley’s “Crazy” — so, for all its many permutations, this remains very much a Booker T. project.

Not the MGs 2.0, mind you. Those looking for a Next-Gen Green Onions will perhaps be disappointed. The Road to Memphis does something more interesting, however, than simply remastering that storied legacy. By bringing in new voices, the album makes clear not just how important Jones’ once was — but how important it still is.

Nick DeRiso

Nick DeRiso

Nick DeRiso has written for USA Today, American Songwriter, All About Jazz, and a host of others. Honored as columnist of the year five times by the Associated Press, Louisiana Press Association and Louisiana Sports Writers Association, he oversaw a daily section named Top 10 in the U.S. by the AP before co-founding Something Else! Nick is now associate editor of Ultimate Classic Rock.
Nick DeRiso
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