Legendary backing musician Booker T. takes center stage at the Three Rivers Arts Festival | Music | Pittsburgh | Pittsburgh City Paper

Legendary backing musician Booker T. takes center stage at the Three Rivers Arts Festival

click to enlarge Now's the time: Booker T.
Now's the time: Booker T.

In the American music pantheon, it's easy to fall for the snarling darlings of rock 'n' roll. But what about the quiet creators -- the bookish boffins behind the curtain, too worn from 14 hours of studio work to drive a limo into the hotel pool? What about Booker T. Jones, for example -- someone who has quietly, perhaps too subtly, changed the way we listen to America?

Jones has pulled his RV over to the side of the road to chat via phone, his charming academic tone softened by that tinge of a marble-mouthed Memphis accent. He and his wife Nan are on their way back to San Francisco after visiting the grandkids near Los Angeles -- not exactly the Keith Moon lifestyle. But then again, it was The Who and the Stones who worshipped at Booker T.'s feet -- not the other way around.

In 1961, at age 16, Booker T. and his Hammond B-3 organ were already embedded in the Stax Records studio, helping to forge one of the most inherently American musical legacies, the bedrock of four decades of American roots R&B and rock. Together with his MG's, essentially the studio band for the Memphis label -- think Otis Redding, Sam and Dave, Carla Thomas, Eddie Floyd and many more -- Jones created Stax's 1960s Southern-soul sound in the studio and on the road. From the 1970s through the 1990s, Jones took a different behind-the-scenes approach, producing now-classic albums for the likes of soul legend Bill Withers and country star Willie Nelson, and touring with just about everyone, notably rocker Neil Young.

Now, at 64 years old and with a new rock 'n' roll album, Potato Hole, out on Anti- Records, Booker T. feels like maybe it's time he got his due -- even if he's nearly too modest to say so.

"If it's not too egotistical to say, I really feel like I deserve to be the frontman," says Jones. "I've played with so many people in my career, and I've enjoyed that background role. ... But now, other people are turning down jobs to play with me. I believe, if you wait long enough, and do your homework, you can have your time. That's this time -- that's now."

"Now" really began in 2007, with the 50th anniversary of Stax. As the driving force behind so much of the label's output, Jones garnered his share of media attention -- interviews, documentaries and even a lifetime achievement award at the Grammies. Soon afterward, he split from his long-time manager, opening the door for new manager Dave Bartlett, an entrée to anything-goes label Anti- and the 40-year-delayed beginning of his career as a rocker.

"I've always loved rock music, but I was never able to just let go and get into it before," says Jones. "With my old labels [and management], it was much more about R&B music. But Anti-, they just got it."

Jones began to write, using two musical tools with which even die-hard fans might not associate the organ legend: an electric guitar, and Ableton Live, the 21st-century standard for computer-based music production. While so many in the soul revival look back to the analog methods of the '60s, Booker T. feels it's not only important to stay on top of the new technology -- it's fun.

"About five years ago, I was called to do a session with Willie Nelson, and behind the engineer, there's an Apple computer screen," he says. "I had no idea what was on the screen; it made me realize I had to catch up." Jones enrolled in five courses on computer-based production systems, sitting beside 20-something would-be engineers without a single Grammy to their name.

"There's so much you can do with [Ableton], it let me get all the technical stuff out of the way -- I felt musically freed."

And a musically freed Booker T. is fairly raucous to behold: Potato Hole features Jones backed by alt-roots band The Drive-By Truckers, with liberal doses of manically loud guitar by old pal Neil Young. Songs like "Native New Yorker" and "Pound It Out" are Crazy Horse-ish mid-tempo smash-ups, paralleled by rock-fueled jam-band material like "Potato Hole" and the excellent cover of labelmate Tom Waits' "Get Behind the Mule."

"Going into the studio, playing and recording -- it still churns in me the same things that were churning in me when I was 16, 17 years old," says Jones. "In fact, it's more comfortable just diving in now.

"I can do that 'laying back and resting [on my laurels]' thing some. But not full time."


Booker T with Hayes Carll. 7 p.m. Thu., June 11. Three Rivers Arts Festival stage, Point State Park, Downtown. Free. All ages. 412-456-6666 or www.artsfestival.net

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