Review: Booker T. Jones’ “Potato Hole”

Apr 24, 2009 7:07pm

For Booker T. Jones’ first solo offering in a number of decades, the mighty MG’s-leader and organist extraordinaire found some puzzling accompaniment.  He chose the Drive-By Truckers as his back-up band.  Why the Drive-By Truckers?  Their country-fried sludgy rock doesn’t really match the MG’s funk, but then again, maybe Jones wanted to widen his horizons.  In addition, Neil Young is also a vital part of the band.  Booker T. and Young have collaborated before on Young’s albums, so this pairing is less surprising.  Sure, Neil Young has never brought the funk, and you don’t think of him when you think of soul music, but he’s also never been one you could really peg down.  Neil Young is a folk-rock icon.  He considered by many to be "the Godfather of Grunge." He’s written some amazing songs and can jam out with the best of them, so it’s not completely weird that he somehow wound up here.  When “Pound It Out” begins with Booker T.’s organ, it all seems to sound friendly and familiar.  Then the hard-rock guitar layers coat the whole track.  This is most definitely not “Green Onions” or “Soul Dressing.”  This is a whole new entity.  It’s not bad.  It just takes some getting used to.  The heavy distortion on the guitars often threatens to drown out Booker T. but the track ultimately has momentum.  “She Breaks” is closer to what you would expect with bassist Shonna Tucker leading the way with a funky bass-line.  Sure, it all soon gets more of a roadhouse blues feeling than those earlier records but it also brings the groove.  Here, thankfully Booker T. is more out in front and allowed to shine when he adds a cool solo.  Next is the set’s first cover.  Booker T. often did covers with the MG’s, famously reworking songs like Simon & Garfunkel’s “Mrs. Robinson” and The Young Rascals’ “Groovin’” into instrumental funk jams.  Here he gives that treatment to Andre 3000′s “Hey Ya.”  That’s right.  Booker T. covers “Hey Ya.”  He does the song well, too.  There was a moment after “Speakerboxxx/The Love Below” came out, when the song had become too omnipresent in the culture.  It’s a great song but it had become too much because of oversaturation.  Booker T. makes the world safe for “Hey Ya” again.  It’s a delight to hear the song reinvented and maybe there will soon come a time again when I can listen to the original without imagining cheeseball new lyrics and celebrities at award shows on red carpets.  (Remember that?  That was the moment the song died for me!)  “Native New Yorker” is as grungy as the subway on a summer day.  Here, Booker T. is once again buried, but his melody still shines through, especially when he plays it in the upper register. 
  “Nan” is barely over two minutes.  In many ways this plays like a classic Booker T. song.  It’s mellow and calm.  It’s a peaceful moment to relax and chill.  It’s a definite highlight.  “Warped Sister” sounds more like garage rock you’d hear at a surly biker bar.  When the heavy guitars recede a little, it becomes more familiar, but somehow it’s not quite as soulful as the tune suggests it could be.  It’s just too crowded a jam.  Remove a guitar and then it would be special.  It definitely is a great tune but it seems a little drowned.  Thankfully, the track does have a few moments of clarity, however.  Next Booker T. and friends cover Tom Waits’ “Get Behind The Mule.”  They are able to summon some of the track’s throbbing, plodding menace and turn it into a cooled-out juke-joint jam, but it’s just not the same without Waits’ words and his rasp. 
  “Reunion Time” is another more typical Booker T. track.  It’s pretty true to the spirit of Booker T.’s original music.  The slide-guitars in the background are the only elements that don’t really gel. 
    The album’s title track is a near-seven minute, groovy rocker.  Its funky roots seem a little past Booker T.’s hey-day.  It’s more of a seventies-style funk than late-sixties.  It’s the best original track on here because it seems the grooviest and most confident.  It’s a comfortable, righteous funk-fest.  Here, Booker T. is able to show why he’s gotten so much respect over the years.  He shows he’s a slick player, indeed.  “Space City” was written by the Drive-By Truckers and it serves as peaceful way to end the disc.  The best moments here are the least rocking.  Booker T. is best when he can show his soul and there’s some tight gospel in his organ performance on this track. 
  “Potato Hole” isn’t as momentous an album as it could’ve been, but it satisfies nonetheless. Ultimately it makes you miss Steve Cropper and Donald “Duck” Dunne a lot.  The Drive-By Truckers do alright, but they can’t match Booker T.’s  original band.  (Those original Stax records still rule. )  On the bright side, this album  definitely brings Booker T. back to the forefront and he’s been gone way too long.   Hopefully he won’t disappear again. 

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