A yearly blues festival in the Twin Cities is a great idea. There are several jazz joints and more rock clubs than you can shake a stick at, but not a single place to go on a regular basis and enjoy some good old fashioned, gut bucket, down-in-the-alley original soul music. Having it in Lowertown, St. Paul is even better, as the bohemian locale, Mears Park specifically, is perfectly suited to host such an event.
So, it’s with pleased anticipation that one shows up to catch the third installment of the fledgling program, offhandedly hoping it continues as an annual throw down. They’ve gotten ambitious, and this time around have made it a two-day affair, the previous night seeing funk performances by The Family Stone, Otis Day and the Knights and more. Hence, it’s now called the Blues & Funk Festival (www.lowertownbluesfestival.com).
It’s honestly not in the least an out of place question to ask why Booker T. Jones of Booker T. & the MG’s fame is headlining blues night. Sure, he’s an R&B immortal, Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductee, and Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award recipient. Better than that, he led the legendary house band at Stax Records working with the likes of Sam & Dave, Otis Redding, Eddie Floyd and Albert King. He also produced Bill Withers’ debut Just as I Am, which yielded the classic “Ain’t No Sunshine.” The man’s pedigree is undeniable. Still, it’s a legitimate, if fairly idle consideration as to how come he’s on the bill, let alone closing the show.
Would that this incidental issue were the worst concern of the concert. Jones’ set starts off just fine. Warming up with a little bit of free-form loosening by the four-piece outfit (organ, bass, drums, guitar), followed by a tidy rendition of his minor hit, the title tune from the old Clint Eastwood Hang ‘em High.
An odd thing then happens. Jones gets up from behind his Hammond B3, straps on a guitar (playing rhythm with his pedestrian lead guitarist doing the solos) to talk-sing The Jimi Hendrix Experience version of the rock chestnut “Hey Joe.” To be sure, Hendrix himself sorta talk-sang everything he did, but he got away with it because he did it with passion (not to mention playing hellified guitar). Jones’ execution basically amounts to shuck and jive, telephoned in at that.
Okay, so it’s a departure hardly worth getting bent out of shape over. Except, Jones stays on guitar and stays at the mic for Muddy Waters’ timeless staple “I’m a Man” and does just as bad a job on that, repeating Waters’ shoot-from-the-hip rhetoric with all the grit passion of a sleep walker. Then, he gives “Respect” a listless run-through: whether you loved Otis Redding’s original or Aretha Franklin’s cover, Jones’ offering comes nowhere near comparing, weak as dishwater.
The thing is, one can easily imagine him having stayed at the keys, dashing off cool arrangements of all three songs. But, where he got the idea he’s a vocalist at all, much less a soul singer, defies explanation. It’s a real break that he sits back down to perform a sweet rendition of “Summertime” and, of course, his signature song “Green Onions.”
He can’t leave well enough alone, though, and gets back up to strum the guitar and drag his tuneless voice through a tortured, hopelessly belabored interpretation of Prince’s “Purple Rain.”
This, it goes without saying, is not what one expected to encounter at such a promising program. Disappointing doesn’t come close to describing it. On the bright side, you get to walk away saying you saw Booker T. Jones perform live.
Dwight Hobbes welcomes reader responses to P.O. Box 50357, Mpls., 55403.