Hey, singers Mayer Hawthorne, Anthony Hamilton, Jay James, Luke James and Estelle, gather your things and clear out, your services are no longer required. Not so fast, Kori Withers, you can stay.
For his new album, the soul ’n’ roll star Booker T. Jones assembles a cast of guest vocalists and other players to celebrate his return to the illustrious Stax recording label, the place where Green Onions grew. But while the young neo-soulsters croon supplely, they do not bring much to a collaborative project involving the Hammond B-3 legend Jones. For the most part, the instrumental tracks are superior – those singers can just get out of town.
Except for Kori Withers, who is the sweet offspring of Bill Withers, the icon whose first hits Ain’t No Sunshine and Grandma’s Hands Jones produced. Perhaps her inclusion on this up-and-down album is nepotistic. Norah Jones would have been a lovely choice for the drowsy duet with Booker T. on Watch You Sleeping, but, then again, we can’t just call Norah up willy-nilly – she needs her sleep too.
Withers is soft and listenable on Watch You Sleeping, a laid-back slumber number with waterbed wah-wah guitar effects as our Ambien. Ain’t no sunshine? Perfectly fine.
Speaking of second-generationers, Father Son Blues features the family interplay of Booker T. and young Ted, who trades searing licks with his pop’s mellower and nimble notes. You could say that the two, on this blissful blues amble, are each keeping up with the Joneses.
(You could say that, but you probably should not, it being cornball.)
Other instrumental highlights include 66 Impala, a vehicle tricked out with Latin-jazz suspension and possibly Carlos Santana’s old sound system. Jones’s organ swirls around the percussion of Poncho Sanchez and the former Princess Sheila E.
Fun pumps and thumps and is a good-to-be-alive vamp. The breeze-shooting Austin City Blues features Texas guitarist Gary Clark Jr., who is a hot shot, but one who respects his elders and speaks only when spoken to. Texas is a big state; plenty of room there. And so he gives wide berth to the comfortable virtuosity of Jones.
Like most of the other tracks, Feel Good explains itself. Horns and Hammond mesh sublimely on a smooth-stepping summer-soul tune with Raphael Saadiq chopping chords easily on rhythm guitar.
Let me take back a little of what I said about the singers. Anthony Hamilton is smooth like Al Green’s smile on Gently, a gospely satisfier about long roads, short times and easy-does-it pacing.
Booker T. Jones, who knows about long roads, is having a moment. His trophy case includes Grammy pop-instrumental trophies for both 2010’s Potato Hole (a collaboration with southern alt-rockers Drive-By Truckers) and 2012’s highly regarded joint effort with the Roots, The Road from Memphis.
This latest album is a road back to Memphis and Stax, with its best material the stuff that stays true to those roots. It is only when Jones strays toward the modern that someone needs to sound the alarm.