Booker T. Jones could have gone in any direction after 2009's Grammy-winning Potato Hole. He's traveled the musical map with his ubiquitous MG's as recent reissues -- 1977's disco-centric Universal Language and the 1970 classic McLemore Avenue, a collection of Beatles covers -- attest. On The Road from Memphis, Jones and his B-3 choose to do some non-linear musical storytelling: in the title lies the key. This set reveals Jones' musical odyssey from the early days in Memphis to the places that influenced his thought and playing: the soul sounds that emerged from Detroit, Philly, and Los Angeles; all along a labyrinthine, groove-laden path into the present day. He enlisted the Roots -- the seemingly ubiquitous go-to house band of the 21st century -- with Amhir ?uestlove Thompson and Rob Schnapf as co-producers, with Dap-Kings' Gabriel Roth engineering. The Road from Memphis is loaded with treats: Detroit Funk Brother Dennis Coffey adds his trademark wah-wah and the Roots' Captain Kirk Douglas adds his jazz guitar sounds. Both men do excellent work, adding buckets of feel to Jones' B-3, ?uestlove's breaks and beats, and bassist Owen Biddle's low-end theory. Vocalists appear on some of the album's key tracks: Sharon Jones and the National's Matt Berninger duet on the slow, summery, "Representing Memphis"; My Morning Jacket's "Yim Yames" does a stunning turn as a soul singer on the Motown-inspired "Progress" (who knew?); Jones takes his own authoritative turn on the deep, funky fingerpop of "Down in Memphis" (even his voice has rhythm). And even Lou Reed gets in on the act on album-closer "The Bronx," doing his usual "real life happening on the streets" croak. It's in the instrumentals, however, that Jones reveals his story best. Opener "Walking Papers" uses the main vamp from Johnnie Taylor's classic "Who's Making Love," (he was backed by Jones and the MG's on the original), and perform it more like the "Cissy Strut"-era Meters. The reading of Gnarls Barkley's "Crazy" offers some of Jones most subtly inventive melodic organ work. "The Hive," "Rent Party," and "The Vamp" have exactly one transcendent idea each (how often can anyone say that about a song?); the band works them to death firing on all levels. The Road from Memphis has grease, grit, groove, and yes, greatness. Jones' story is compelling listening, but more than that , it's a backbone-slipping monster of a dance record.
Share this page
AllMusic Review by Thom Jurek