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Booker T. Jones / Steve Cropper: The Road from Memphis / Dedicated
Booker T. Jones
The Road from Memphis
Sure, Booker T. & the MG’s ended its Southern soul-defining run at Stax/Volt forty years ago, but these instrumental giants will probably always be thought of as bandmates. That’s what a Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction does for you.
New albums from Hammond B-3 standard-setter Booker T. Jones and rhythm-plus-lead guitar master Steve Cropper find both acting as tour guides through the musical landscapes of their pre-”Green Onions” youths. But the path that each takes couldn’t be more different.
Cropper is as direct as he can be. He’s long spoken of the early R&B outfit The “5” Royales—guitarist/songwriter Lowman Pauling in particular—as a pivotal influence. He recorded 15 of their songs for Dedicated: A Salute to the 5 Royales with funk, soul and pop players from all over the map: Swampers Spooner Oldham and David Hood, Average White Band’s Steve Ferrone, the John Mayer Trio’s Steve Jordan, the Dap Kings’ Neal Sugarman and Cropper’s saxophonist/co-producer Jon Tiven.
The songs don’t beat around the bush and, on most of the tracks, a small army of guest vocalists—from usual retro-soul suspects (*Sharon Jones* and Bettye LaVette) to less obvious, more countrified choices (*Lucinda Williams* and Buddy Miller) —rise to the occasion. But, due to the production, some of the grooves are scrubbed too clean for their own good, and Cropper’s still-tasteful licks don’t get a prominent enough billing.
By comparison, Jones takes the scenic route on The Road from Memphis, telling the story—mostly without words—of where he found that soul feel in his native city and where it’s turned up since. There’s the humid, percolating “Rent Party;” the rubbery, energized vibe of a teen-filled diner in “Harlem House;” the social optimism of “Progress,” featuring an in-his-element Jim James, and more. As a forward-looking gesture, Jones even covers contemporary soul-pop (Gnarls Barkley’s “Crazy”) and hip-hop (Lauryn Hill’s “Everything Is Everything”), attacking the melodies with his punchy, voice-like B-3 phrasing.
The band Jones hired—and the fact that it’s a bona fide band makes all the difference—is The Roots, plus Motown guitarist Dennis Coffey. Unlike 2009’s rock-leaning Potato Hole, this one’s danceable from start to finish, powered by a lean, mean, funky rhythm section—particularly the head-to-toe syncopation of drummer Ahmir ?uestlove Thompson.
As much as Jones and Cropper have shaped popular music—not just soul—for the past half-century, who wouldn’t be curious about where it all started for them?
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