Two songs in to Friday’s Booker T. Jones concert at The ArtsCenter in Carrboro, during “Hang ‘Em High” from the spaghetti western of the same name, I thought of James Honeyman-Scott. The original lead guitarist of the Pretenders had an expression for the kind of florid guitar soloing that was all the rage in the late seventies—“widdly-woo.” I thought of the late Scott’s phrase because, it seemed to me, things were beginning to get a bit widdly-woo onstage. And that surprised me.
To me, the essence of Booker T. Jones’s music is less is more. But there were two guitarists onstage—Mr. Jones’s son, Ted, and the more masterful Vernon “Ice” Black—both taking accomplished, fiery, fleet-fingered, classic “w-w” solos. It felt premature to be reaching for those heights so quickly, plus antithetical to Jones’ influential aesthetic.
It also felt a bit peculiar seeing someone of Booker T. Jones’s stature in the folksy confines of The ArtsCenter. He’s earned all every accolade you can imagine—Rock Hall of Fame, lifetime Grammy, godlike acclaim among heavy-hitting musical peers, recognized both for pioneering the Stax sound as well as founding one of the first racially integrated pop bands. The turnout was good, at least, but I couldn’t help noting that the crowd was not what anyone would call integrated, consisting mostly of people who might have been teens in the sixties.
In the minds of many, Jones, 71, is preserved in the amber of “Green Onions,” the ur-instrumental that he cooked up with his band, the MGs, in 1962 after a self-imposed edict to come up with something, in guitarist Steve Cropper’s words, “as funky as possible.” You can’t go to see Booker T and not sit in anticipation of that platter. They got to it at the end of the first set. Introducing it with insouciant understatement, Jones said, “Here’s a song I wrote when I was a senior in high school in Memphis, Tennessee. It was our first record as Booker T. & the MGs, and we called it ‘Green Onions.’” (I was reminded of Brian Wilson a few months ago, introducing “God Only Knows” as “a really pretty ballad.”)
Hearing the band launch into “Green Onions” is to once again marvel at the panther purr of Jones’s B3 and the devilishly simple groove that powers the song. We were right there in it. And then? It kept going with guitar solos. But rather than Steve Cropper’s minimal splats, both guitarists indulged in very accomplished, face-melting-type soloing.
Not to say that it wasn’t a pleasure just to be there and hear these great songs and spend time with Jones. Spry and elegant in a black suit and fedora, he speaks in a sonorous baritone that makes between-song reminiscences about folks like Otis Redding and Jimi Hendrix all the more captivating. Although he is known for his pioneering keyboard style, Jones, unsurprisingly, has a deft touch singing soul, blues, and rock, too; he spent roughly half the show at center stage, lightly strumming his Telecaster.
Along with his defining hits with the MGs, like the supremely funky “Hip Hug-Her” (which included a rap section from drummer Darian Gray, who stood out in a crack ensemble all night), the set list was a reminder that, in the early sixties, instrumental bands like Jones’s and the Ventures thrived with catalogs consisting mainly of cover songs. His choices now span decades, from Muddy Waters’s “Mannish Boy” and Otis Redding’s “Respect” to Prince’s “Purple Rain.” Every cover band does a Beatles song, but how many cover bands influenced the Beatles? That’s some difference.
“Time Is Tight,” a 1969 hit, provided a perfect ending, allowing a stretched-out showcase for Jones’s lulling Hammond B3. I could have listened to it all night.