Friday Night: Booker T and Bettye LaVette at the Independent

Categories: Last Night
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Booker T

Booker T and Bettye LaVette
The Independent
Friday, May 8, 2009

Last night I saw Booker T. Jones, one of the titans of American music, and it really hit me how much he has contributed to Western pop culture. I was also digging his performance, as was everyone else at the sold-out show.

When I was growing up in the American South in the '60s, my parents kept the radio tuned to country or easy listening stations. When I had a chance to turn the dial, the music I heard was completely affected by Booker T. and the MGs and the sound of the Stax label. I didn't think about it too much at the time, but the grooves that came from Memphis laid the groundwork for what we know as soul music and provided the backbone for some of our country's greatest artistic statements.

And Friday night, there was soul to be had. Opener Bettye LaVette, enjoying a recent renaissance with two scorching soul albums (I've Got My Own Hell to Raise from 2005 and Scene of the Crime from 2007), schooled the crowd with some wrenching R&B. Dressed simply in a black sleeveless top and slacks, she belted out songs from the '60s, too, bringing out the Northern Soul in all of us. I've rarely heard an audience approve of a supporting act so fiercely. When she returned for an a cappella encore of Sinead O'Connor's "I Do Not Want What I Haven't Got" (from Hell to Raise), there was barely a dry eye in the house, and yes, your correspondent did succumb.

I always enjoy going to shows at the Independent. There's generally a friendly, welcoming vibe. Friday night's audience was a great mix of people in ethnicity and age; some looked just old enough to be admitted to that night's show, while some might actually have seen Booker T. and the MGs backing up Otis Redding at Monterey Pop in 1967. I think that's a good thing.

Booker T. doesn't come out onstage and pull splits like James Brown or Prince. He was dressed casually in trilby, shirt, and jeans, and barely acknowledged the appreciative crowd as he sat down at his Hammond B-3. He acts as the cool captain of his band, guiding them in the driving yet spare sound of Memphis soul. When he casually mentioned co-writing "Born Under a Bad Sign" before playing it, that reinforced the fact that we were in the presence of musical greatness.

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Friday's set list.
Booker T.'s band was composed of young bucks who could really play, but they could have been more subtle like the MGs, although I'm being a little picky. They kicked out some cornerstones of our musical heritage, like "Green Onions" and "Hip Hug Her," alongside tracks from his most recent album, Potato Hole (recorded with the Drive-By Truckers, although they didn't appear tonight). "Reunion Time" was soulful and evocative) and he even did a smart and understated cover of OutKast's "Hey Ya" (also from the new album) his keyboard stabs standing in for Andre 3000's exultant yelps. He closed the show with a brooding cover of Tom Waits' "Get Behind the Mule."

Booker T. doesn't play many shows around the Bay Area, although fans with deep pockets can see him honored at the San Francisco Museum and Historical Society's event "Rockin' the Mint" on June 4 alongside other Bay Area musical luminaries including Carlos Santana, Jefferson Starship, and Boz Scaggs. I'll be in attendance the next time he plays a club show.
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