Best gig of the year, and it was only February!
March 1, 2019
I’m often asked when to open a bottle of wine that’s been gathering dust in somebody’s rack – “will it still be any good?”
“Open it without expectations, and hope to be pleasantly surprised”.
Sometimes I take a similar approach when the programme from Ronnie Scott’s appears in my inbox. Pick a name I recognise, and take a punt.
The chances are that, like me, you’ve heard of the band, Booker T. and the MGs, and their best-known hit “Green Onions”, released in 1962.
That’s how I came to be sitting in Ronnie’s on a Thursday night in February, waiting for Booker T. Jones to take the stage.
His band came out first, three young dudes, followed by the man himself, elegantly dressed in a box-back suit and a neat Stetson hat: he carries himself with the authority of an ambassador, the bearing of a legend, and he beams with a smile like Louis Armstrong.
After taking his seat at the Hammond B3, we waited for him as he fastidiously wiped his keys (I was going to say “polished his organ”, but I thought you might misunderstand me, Matron) before launching into the set.
The opening number made me think of spaghetti westerns, as the warm sound of the organ rose to a melodramatic crescendo, with galloping drumbeats and twanging guitars.
“That was the theme from “Hang ’em High”, a Clint Eastwood movie from 1968″.
Booker Taliaferro Jones was born in Memphis, Tennessee on 4th November, 1944. Raised by musical parents on gospel and blues, by 16 he was playing saxophone professionally for Satellite Records (later Stax), and at the age of 17 he co-wrote a song for bluesman Albert King, later covered in the UK by Cream:
“Born under a Bad Sign”
“Born under a bad sign, been down since I began to crawl
If it wasn’t for bad luck, I wouldn’t have no luck at all
If it wasn’t for bad luck, I wouldn’t have no kind of luck
If it wasn’t for real bad luck, I wouldn’t have no luck at all”
Between songs, Booker told us that he’s writing his life story (“my advice is, don’t write your life story”) and made reference to his early career. He comes across as a modest man, but one who is not averse to dropping some names.
After seeing the Isley Brothers “and their sideman” Jimi Hendrix, in 1967 he went on to attend the Monterey Pop Festival, where “no-one was back stage; they were all out front, listening to Jimi”.
Booker stood up, strapped on a guitar, and sang his interpretation of Hendrix’s “Hey Joe”. It was matter-of-fact”, almost conversational:
“Yeah, I shot her. I shot my old lady down. Yes, I did, I shot her.
You know I caught her messin’ ’round. Messin’ ’round town.
It was a reflective, contemplative treatment, stripping it down to a song of lost love and friendship. As it reached its end, tears were flowing in the audience.
Most of Booker’s original material on the night came from 1962 – 1968. “People started to say all the music we made in Memphis sounded the same, so we recorded “Time is Tight” in New York”.
Like Green Onions, the closing number has a driving bass line, tight drums, choppy guitar and jaunty organ, but with “Time is Tight” the evening took a funky turn.
Booker T Jones? We had no clear expectations, but it was the best gig of 2019, so far, and is likely to be one of the best by the end of the year.
Ted Jones, guitar, vocals. Black jacket and T-shirt with a gold chain, and modest virtuosity.
Darian Grey, drums, vocals. Ripped shirtsleeves under his waistcoat, to show his technique.
Lawrence Shaw, bass guitar. Richly coloured shirt, patterned tan, gold and black, with a quiet authority.