Handsomely dressed, clean-shaven, wearing a suit, tie and pork pie hat, Booker T. Jones smiles at a full house from the organ. His voice is warm, accepting and sonorous. When his right hand fingers brush lightly against the keys his movements are purposeful and fluid, like lashes lifting away a lone tear. He’s relaxed and blissful yet watchful and vigilant - he leans just a little bit closer to his instrument and little by little his invisible touch yields screeching outros, stacks of melodies and powerful transitions.

Darian Gray, the young drummer/rapper and Pandora music analyst, issues a black-coffee-strong beat. He’ll go espresso on Latin-infused ‘Impala 66,’ when he’ll be expected to fill the shoes of a Pancho Sanchez horn section and will nail it. Vernon “Ice” Black wears a shockingly bright shirt. He tosses his long braids from side to side as he flashes a smile. His rhythm guitar patterns sound raw and intuitive; his solos crammed with desire. Working with Todd Rundgren, Aretha Franklin, Michael Bolton and the Temptations have made him a seasoned versatile star in his own right. Melvin Brannon Jr. plays old-school bass lines with the bravado of a linebacker.

On one of Chicago’s last snowless nights, the band played an ambitious 90-minutes plus set; the second of the night. Up until the bitter end of the prior set, Jones had autographed albums – several very happy fans strolled by waving the signed recordings in our faces, and told us we were in for a treat. Their comments didn’t take long to confirm.

They started out with one of the best instrumentals from brand new album, 'Sound the Alarm', a gem of original music, which marks Jones’ jubilant return to the Stax/Concord Label. With the MG’s, Jones backed Otis Redding, Wilson Pickett and other soul statesmen in the 1960s.‘Fun’ is a great exposition piece; Black and Brannon maintained close, animated contact, preening on stage with wild-eyed enthusiasm. Jones nursed brilliant sounds from his organ, as they pulled from a number of eras.

The joyride reverted back to 1967 for Booker T. and the MG’s smooth, funk-fringed ‘Hip Hug-Her’ and then the famous instrumental the Memphis prodigy penned at only 17, ‘Green Onions.’ It goes without saying that everyone appreciated hearing this cool number so early in the set.

On ‘Bright Lights Big City’, a traditional shuffle, the team had his back. “I’m going up, going down,” they sang; the timeless lyric, fat beat and friendly posturing brought everyone together. Jones paid tribute to good friends like Jimi Hendrix and when he launched into ‘Hey Joe’, his voice, incredibly, resembled the voice of the late guitarist. Jones recalled playing the Monterey Pop Festival and that “something was new and different in America. They were escorted on stage by Hell’s Angels.” Black’s solo was bluesy, psychedelic and affectionate.

Taking the time to introduce each song, Jones recapped life in Memphis and LA, letting us in on what he was doing back then and what he came away with. He had played bass and served as a co-producer on Bob Dylan’s 'Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid' soundtrack in 1973, and ‘Knockin’ On Heaven’s Door’ form it became a smash.

Jones sang the Dylan mainstay with laid-back, carefree yet heartbreaking conviction. The aforementioned’66 Impala’ swung with a contagious Latin pulse and offered Gray a chance to totally entrance us with his gifts. When bass and B3 joined forces, doubling the line, the groove rose to fever pitch.

Even as the bright B3 harmonies to ‘Soul Limbo’ escalated by thirds, the catchy, linear melody rang out loud and clear. Jones explained, “The British used the song for limbo games.” It was easy to visualize a spirited player shifting his frame under a bamboo pole, inching more closely to the ground each time, but never touching. This is the timeless, quintessential party song.

Jones commandeered Leon Russell’s signature ballad, ‘A Song for You,’ with surprisingly sparse but effective chording and a bittersweet vocal. A strong touch of contemporary style was showcased in Lauryn Hill’s ‘Everything is Everything’ and it was back to the classics for the Booker T. and the MG’s ‘Time is Tight’, where Jones and company broke into a twangy, exciting and extended outro.

The demand for an encore brought the band back to play BB King’s ‘The Thrill is Gone.’

True, the set was varied and spoke to soul, blues and pop ballads; albums old and new, yet the band seemed especially keen to please Chicago’s proud blues community. When Jones earlier sang some Jimmy Reed, he sounded like one of our native sons.

Jones and the band stuck around to greet the audience and sign 'Sound the Alarm' and other records. What they accomplished was no small feat. Overall, they fused extraordinary classics with the contemporary. We saw Booker T. Jones under the spotlight performing as a compelling singer/guitarist and polished B3 instrumentalist. He and his players played with confidence and a great love for the material in what was one of the most compelling live performances of 2013.


The photographs that accompany this article were taken by Paul Crisanti.

















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