Booker T Jones was at the Robin on Bank Holiday Monday. Dave Woodhall was watching.
When you’ve written the music that’s accompanied the BBC’s cricket coverage for longer than anyone can remember, you’ll always be associated with summer. That’s why Booker T Jones on an August Bank Holiday evening at the Robin promised to be the perfect combination – red-hot soul sounds in front of a packed and steaming audience.
Unless you’ve been on Mars you’ll have noticed that this summer hasn’t gone to plan, and the audience was damp rather than steaming. The music, though, was something else.
Booker T’s band walk on stage and start up a very passable slab of funk that turns into Harlem House, from his Grammy-winning album of last year The Road From Memphis. By now the man himself is on stage, complete with pork pie hat and suit, looking as though he could have spent the past fifty years playing dominoes in a pub on Dudley Road rather than writing and recording more great music than one man could ever claim to be his fair share. He gets behind the Hammond B3 he’s made his own and there’s another one from the album, the just-as-funky Walking Papers. To come up with something so fresh after so long in the business is testament to a rare talent indeed.
The album plugged, it’s time to wander through that extensive back catalogue. Born Under a Bad Sign, co-written with William Bell for Albert King, with the Hammond adding an extra dimension and Booker’s oft-overlooked voice treating the first modern blues classic with due reverence.
Now, if you’ve recorded what might be the most famous pop instrumental of all time, do you close the set with it? Play it as an encore? Or do you casually announce midway, “This is one I recorded in 1962 with the MGs” and launch into Green Onions while the audience look on spellbound? You might think that after fifty years he’d be tempted to leave it out of the set altogether, but as he said later, “It’s the best. And you gotta play the best.”
The set then changes course as the rest of the band leave the stage while guitarist Vernon Black begins a solo version of the Hendrix song Little Wing, Booker returning for a rousing finale.
A rocking Take Me to the River highlights the band’s versatility, with Booker on guitar and drummer Draian Gray providing a machine-gun rap. Gray’s talents come to the fore once again on Soul Limbo, a blisteringly fast version where he provides percussion that would have done justice to MGs drummer Al Jackson at his best. And the set proper wraps up with a re-working of another MGs classic, the oft-covered Time is Tight, often used by the band’s guitarist Steve Cropper to open his own gigs. Both men have graced the Robin stage, with Cropper now a regular on the British circuit with the Animals, but sadly there are no plans for the two surviving MGs to tour together.
With scarcely time to go offstage the band re-emerge for another MG’s track, Hip Hug Her, featuring more of the Gray rapping ability, one more blistering run through of instrumental keyboard genius and a final song, when Booker straps on his guitar for a tender rendition of his former label-mate Otis Redding’s classic I’ve Been Loving You Too Long. “It’s been great,” says Booker of the truncated tour which has seen him play just two dates on this trip to Britain. Tonight certainly was, even if the weather wasn’t.