Booker T: A Soul Man Tackles OutKast

Tuesday's Pick

  • Song: "Hey Ya"
  • Artist: Booker T
  • CD: Potato Hole
  • Genre: Soul
Booker T 300

Booker T. Jones' instrumental rendition of OutKast's "Hey Ya" manages to capture the bittersweet underbelly of the original. courtesy of the artist hide caption

itoggle caption courtesy of the artist

There's an inspired irony at play on Potato Hole, the new album from Memphis soul architect Booker T. Jones. At the just-autumnal age of 64, the organist forgoes the taut, flinty grooves he exploited with his MGs at Stax Records in favor of something altogether larger, looser and louder.

Jones is backed by the highbrow Southern rock band Drive-By Truckers and Neil Young on guitar, in grunge mode. On some level, these collaborations might seem forced — a modernist, calculated comeback attempt for the "Green Onions" legend. But a good deal of history and fraternity predates Potato Hole.

Truckers singer-guitarist Patterson Hood gets his knack for smart, versatile accompaniment from his father, David Hood, who played bass in the Muscle Shoals Rhythm Section at FAME Studios before co-founding the Muscle Shoals Sound Studio in 1969. Decades later, Drive-By Truckers and David Hood worked at FAME playing house band on Bettye LaVette's The Scene of the Crime, an album that brought further acclaim to the maverick soul singer's newly resurrected career. Regarding Young, he chose Booker T & The MGs to be his band for a 1993 tour. (For those playing a parlor game with degrees of separation, a common thread here is keyboardist Spooner Oldham, not present on Potato Hole.)

All this compatibility is palpable on Potato Hole, a guitar-loaded record that works mostly in robust instrumental rock but also explores R&B and funk. While most of the songs are memorable Jones originals, the organist and sometime guitarist includes three covers, among them the Andre 3000-helmed OutKast smash from 2003, "Hey Ya."

The arrangement here is positively explosive, with organ tackling the vocal hook and guitar recasting the coy synth line. Part of the original's genius lies in the way it infuses powerhouse pop with romantic unrest, and Jones' rendition evokes a similarly bittersweet feeling.

In attitude, the hard-driving track seems worlds away from the MGs' lilt and Steve Cropper's curt guitar, but there are similarities in approach. As with The MGs, it's an effort in ensemble cohesion and democratic interplay. Another likeness deals with repertoire: Like many wordless acts of the '60s and '70s, The MGs capitalized on pop, from takes of the Young Rascals' "Groovin'" and Simon & Garfunkel's "Mrs. Robinson" to the 1970 album McLemore Avenue, an interpretation of The Beatles' Abbey Road. The danger in this, of course, is coming up Muzak — a pitfall Booker T. avoided then with economy and grit, and now with fire.

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