Rams Head On Stage Show Review: Booker T. Jones (by Matt Ellis)

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During my brief stint as a Rams Head guest blogger, there’s one thing I’ve noticed at most of the Rams Head On Stage shows I’ve attended – I’m often the youngest person there, or at most, I represent one of only a handful of millennials.  It makes sense, since most of the acts I choose to see had their heyday decades before I was born.  It seems some other Rams Head On Stage patrons have also begun to notice this disparity as of late.

I ran into two Booker T. Jones fans, Pat Gill and Jim Lee, before the show on Thursday night.  They asked me what someone as young as me was doing at a Booker T. Jones show.  I explained that I write previews and reviews for the Rams Head blog, and they quickly tested my knowledge of Booker T. and the MG’s history.  “You don’t know who Steve Cropper is?!  Oh, you can’t write this article if you don’t know Steve Cropper!”

Thankfully, they proceeded to educate me, explaining how the bi-racial quartet Booker T. and the MG’s were a revelation coming out of Memphis in the 60s when race riots were still commonplace in the South.  The original lineup that served as the Stax Records backing band was impeccable, they said, featuring Cropper, the late Donald “Duck” Dunn, and Al Jackson, Jr.

One thing that occurred to me while talking to these guys was how regardless of what conflicts we’ve had in the past, and those we’ll inevitably have in the future, there’s one thing that can connect all people across continental and generational boundaries, and that is music.

Booker T.’s music in particular, his essence of cool, and the way he interacts with the audience has this unique ability to whisk me back in time and paint an image of an American era that I never experienced, but to me represents a period when our country’s fate rested on the backs of the youth generation and the ideals of tolerance and equality (themes that carry on today).

And, for many of the people around me at these shows, it represents even more:  their childhood, their coming of age – a time that is not just a chapter in a history textbook, but a vivid memory, a tangible experience, a part of their soul.

That’s what you feel when Booker T. stands up at his piano and calmly walks to the center mic, picking up his guitar and strumming a few chords as he talks about his friend, Bill Withers, who came to visit one day in Malibu many years ago.  “Bill came out to my house,” Jones explains.  “And he sat down in my living room, and he says…” pausing, before belting out the first line, “Ain’t no sunshine when she’s gone…” as the crowd cheered and the band began playing along with him.

“A great spirit that guy is.  I wish we could get him to come back, but he’d rather be wood working and stuff like that,” Jones said, speaking of Withers before beginning a new story about performing at the Monterey Pop Festival with Otis Redding and hearing Jimi Hendrix play.  A soulful “Hey Joe” cover followed to great applause.

Being at this show was like witnessing the birth of the jam session.  Jones offers the audience snapshot after snapshot of historic events, from his own life, and brings them alive with masterful musicianship.  Plus, Jones is incomparable as a performer.  He’s a seasoned veteran, playing various instruments and recording original music since his high school days and his stage presence is unmatched.  He’s so relaxed and that vibe is naturally transmitted to the audience in waves of earthy organ blasts and bluesy guitar riffs.  His band mates are perfectly synced and their creativity is top notch.

The audience gave the band two standing ovations, the second following a seemingly impromptu encore after Jones had announced the end of the show and nearly one fifth of the audience had gotten up to leave.  For those who stayed, it was a real treat, as Jones and crew played an adaptation of Outkast’s 2000s era hit, “Hey Ya,” and jammed for at least another 20 minutes.

– Matt Ellis

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