Coachella: Booker T. Jones tours with a new album that breaks the mold
The multi-instrumentalist will stop by the annual desert music fest, with the Drive-By Truckers in tow.
For about three seconds, Booker T. Jones' new album, "Potato Hole," is exactly what you'd expect. "Pound It Out," the opening track, begins with the unaccompanied notes of a Hammond organ, an instrument whose quavering sound was integral to the records Jones made in the 1960s, both as part of Booker T & the MGs and as part of the Stax Records house band that backed Otis Redding and Sam & Dave, among many others.
Recorded in a converted movie theater in Memphis, Tenn., the hundreds of songs Jones cut for Stax were saturated in Southern grit and sweat, a sound that came to define and occasionally constrain his career. But "Potato Hole," his first solo album in almost two decades, due out April 21, announces its intention to depart from that template right off the bat. Jones' opening riff is met with a thundering triple-guitar blast, courtesy of Southern rockers the Drive-By Truckers, who back Jones on all of the album's 10 tracks.
The muscular back-and-forth serves as a statement of purpose, heralding an album as likely to feature the echoing crunch of Neil Young's lead guitar -- which is heard on all but one song -- as Jones' trademark trill. That harder-edged sound will be on full display when Jones, with the Truckers in tow, takes a series of festival stages this year, beginning with the Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival on Saturday and followed by the New Orleans jazz fest and Tennessee's Bonnaroo in June.
"It takes a little bit of courage to change your configuration, to actually step out and show your real self in the music business," said Jones, sipping green tea in a Manhattan cafe. "I always loved blues, I always loved jazz, I always loved country, I always loved R&B, and I always loved rock. This is just a part of me that never got to come out before."
Jones, who played his first Stax session at age 16, always has been a musical polymath. In addition to piano and organ, he learned saxophone and trombone while still in high school, and at the height of Stax's success, he took weekdays off to complete a degree in classical music.
Released in 1962, Booker T & the MGs' "Green Onions" was a major hit and enabled the front man and his band to record and tour as an instrumental quartet for most of the next decade. But Jones began to feel stifled by Stax's signature sound, and after the ambitious "McLemore Avenue," an album-length tribute to the Beatles' "Abbey Road," and the jazz-tinged "Melting Pot" met with tepid receptions, he quit the group and the label he had come to regard as a surrogate family.
"I was 25 years old," he recalled. "Then as now, I had all these musical ideas, and I had more attitude then. Leaving didn't take a second. I just got on the plane and took off."
Named for a slave's hiding place, "Potato Hole" draws on a wide sonic palette, from the bluesy acoustic guitar of "Nan," a lyrical tribute to Jones' wife, to a feisty cover of OutKast's "Hey Ya."
Despite the album's range, Jones endeavored to hold onto the elemental simplicity at the heart of all great popular music.
"The simplicity has always been a place for me to go back to and feel right, something to seek in my creativity and the music from the beginning," he said. "When you can find the simplicity, usually there's some beauty down in there. Sometimes, it was just one note, or maybe two or three notes in a little pattern."
Jones drew some of his inspiration from the time he spent with MGs Steve Cropper and Donald "Duck" Dunn backing Young in the early 1990s. "I was kind of copying Neil's sound in the concept of the writing of the songs," Jones said. "His sound was in my head."
Writing songs on the guitar, Jones drew on Young's primitive streak, his fondness for the big, loud and brutish.
"It's about overtones," Jones said, "and the pureness, the way Neil hits a hard chord and then you just sit and listen to the sound do its things. I heard that a lot when I was working with him onstage. I kind of grew to love it, and I wanted to do it myself."
If "Potato Hole" never approaches the brilliant stupidity of Young's "Welfare Mothers," such songs as "Warped Sister" and "Native New Yorker" still kick up a heck of a racket, enough to fulfill the imperative of the album's first song.
"I was getting stuck in the writing," Jones recalls. "I would be at a place where I couldn't move forward, and I would have to force myself to play. I finally realized I needed to have faith in the process, have faith in the creative muse, and I ended up with these words: Pound it out. I realized, if you create anything, this is what you do. You have to go blindly in the direction that you choose, even though you can't see ahead of you."
-- Sam Adams
Photo: Randi Lynn Beach / For the Times