Booker T. Jones: “Potato Hole”
Don’t let the timetable mislead you: Potato Hole might be Booker T. Jones’ first album in twenty years, but that doesn’t mean he’s spent the last two decades working on it. There’s no mistaking this album for a work of carefully-planned studio presicion or love-borne labor– it’s an album that was recorded quickly, spontaneously, with no particular vision in mind other than the creation of music that simply feels good to listen to. And that’s exactly what the album turns out to be; neither a deliberate departure from Green Onions, the seminal record that has cast its shadow over Jones’ entire career, nor a stab at recreating it, Potato Hole is simply the sound of a veteran musician settling into one big, long, comfortable groove.
Jones’ studio band is none other than the Drive-by Truckers, who proved their mettle as an inspired roadhouse-soul band on Bettye LaVette’s wonderful album The Scene of the Crime, but if the Truckers’ drummer Brad Morgan is the album’s MVP– his limber timekeeping keeping the band anchored while keeping the songs malleable and pushing them in different directions– the flashier star here is Neil Young, who plays ragged electric guitar on all but one of the album’s tracks and covers Jones’ fluid, gently funky compositions with a greasy sheen of grunge. For his part, Jones whirls right along on his B-3, keeping the grunge from drowning out the funk.
His great gift has always been making this kind of thing sound easy, which of course we all know it’s not, but that turns out to be a bit of a two-edged sword here; if the album’s virtue is in the laid-back charm of hearing these top-notch musicians ease into a warm, comfortable groove, its vice is that it’s all just a little too comfortable, with all of the songs reaching a repectable simmer but never quite coming to a boil. Nowhere is that more evident than on the cover of Outkast’s “Hey Ya,” a selection that sounds more audacious on paper than on the record; try as he might, Booker T. just can’t replicate the careening joy of Andre 3000 with his organ– a B-3 is a poor subtitute for a thick Southern drawl– and without the steady progression of the lyrics, there’s not as great a sense of dynamics here, making it, like several of these songs, feel like a great little groove that’s stretched just a bit too thin.
There’s a cover of Tom Waits‘ “Get Behind the Mule,” as well, which is less radical but more effective; Jones doesn’t stray too far from the structure or spirit of the orginal, but he does offer a more playful reading, which, it turns out, is what separates the very good songs from the merely solid songs on this set: A sense of play. There is, alas, not enough of it to make Potato Hole a knockout, but what it lacks in thrills it makes up for in warmth and rhythm, so if the album isn’t anywhere in the same league as Green Onions, it’s at least worthy of the comparison.