Soul legend’s latest stacks up well against the classics…
Both Booker T‘s last couple of albums – 2010’s Potato Hole, recorded with The Drive By Truckers, and last year’s The Road From Memphis, on which he was accompanied by The Roots – banked the keyboard legend Grammy Awards for Best Pop Instrumental Album. Which makes it slightly surprising that for this historic return to Stax, he should bring in a host of guest singers rather than continue mining the instrumental vein.
But not to Booker, it doesn’t. He’s always considered himself a writer and producer first and foremost, claiming that he only stumbled into the instrumental thing by accident, when he and his fellow session musicians had a hit with “Green Onions“. His forte – borne out by his stewardship of countless Stax hits and subsequently Bill Withers’ early albums – is for hearing great singers and understanding how to present them, and what material might best suit their style and sound. On Sound The Alarm, he draws on both new and established talent to create an album that oozes relaxed, soulful vibes, a characteristic blend of warm with cool.
Best of the established artists is Anthony Hamilton, a model of understated gospel fervour on “Gently”, which taps into the classic confluence of church and civil rights via lines like “We got a long road and a short time to get there”. It’s a classy piece of work, as is “Your Love Is No Love”, a Southern soul number featuring Vintage Trouble’s Ty Taylor, a singer with a smokey, pleading edge to his delivery. Vintage Trouble provide a self-contained backing group for the track, while elsewhere the likes of Raphael Saadiq, Jam & Lewis and new axe hero Gary Clark Jr. help out with the backing tracks – Saadiq’s clipped rhythm guitar driving along “Broken Heart”, a sort of cross between “Midnight Train To Georgia” and “Fuck You”, and Clark’s terse guitar in Steve Cropper style helping stitch together the reflective organ instrumental “Austin Blues Idea”.
Most tracks, however, are produced by Booker with the Avila brothers, Bobby Ross and Issiah, a couple of Hispanic siblings from East LA who bring a dash of spice to the rhythms. Of the newer vocal talent, Luke James is featured on “All Over The Place”, a fluid guitar groove with occasional “Shaft”-like horn punctuation, while coming soul star Meyer Hawthorne opens the album in fine style with the title-track, whose backing-vocal congregation accentuates the gospel feel of a song urging us to “Keep on marching/Like a million soldiers”. But most satisfying of the newcomers is Bill’s daughter Kori Withers, with whom Booker shares vocals on “Watch You Sleeping”: her cute, affectionate tone is entirely beguiling on a baby-song to rival “Isn’t She Lovely”.
Punctuating the album are a clutch of instrumentals, the best of which are “66 Impala”, a Santana-esque Latino-soul piece on which the Avila Brothers get to stretch out with percussionists Poncho Sanchez and Sheila E, and the aptly-title “Fun”, a punchy dance groove in MGs manner that’s like “Tears Of A Clown” with a fat Stax backbeat, staccato horn punctuation, and an infectious party ambience. It’s the most obvious link here to the distant history of Booker’s earlier Stax career, bristling with light-hearted good times and tipsy bonhomie: a reminder that, for all the changes in music since his ’60s heyday, Booker T can still effortlessly access the pleasure principle that transcends musical trends and fleeting fashions, with an instinctive grasp of groove and momentum that speaks directly to heart, feet and head alike.
Your new album is a return to Stax…
Yes, both legally and spiritually, it’s a return to Stax, for lack of better words. I’m actually signed to the Stax label like I was 50 years ago, and I’m making R&B music that Stax would probably have continued to release had they not had the problems and changes that they went through.
They’ve rebuilt the place on the same McLemore Avenue site, I believe?
Yes, it’s a replica, and it’s pretty accurate.They contacted Steve Clark and got all the dimensions – he was one of the original kids that ripped out the seats and all that stuff when they converted it, so he would know! And it feels really close. It’s not really a working studio anymore, though, it’s more of a museum.
You have Gary Clark Jr on the album too, who’s blowing up now.
Yes, I met Gary by accident almost three years ago at Apple up in Cupertino. We were both premiering songs for iTunes up there, he was downstairs and I heard his music when my music stopped, so I went downstairs to listen, and there he was, just him and his drummer, and I was fascinated. I gave him my phone number, and we became friends. He’s a star! I thought I could help him, but he didn’t need my help!
INTERVIEW: ANDY GILL