Booker T. Jones filled the Suffolk Theater in Riverhead Sunday night, bringing his brand of restrained cool to an adoring audience ready to hang on his every thoughtfully delivered musical utterance.
His Hammond B3 organ sounded clear and powerful, right at the heart of his tight quartet.
In the history of rock, Booker T. Jones is an outlier. First of all, in a field dominated by vocal groups, Booker’s 1960s band—the legendary Booker T. and the MGs—released only instrumentals. And those MGs tracks, songs like “Hip Hug Her,” “Time Is Tight,” and 1962’s immortal “Green Onions,” arguably form the core of rock’s limited legacy of instrumental classics.
Second of all, Booker is one of a handful of rock bandleaders to favor the Hammond organ over guitar or piano. His name is virtually synonymous with the warm, rich sound of the Hammond, and he did more than anyone else to introduce the varied, expressive tones of the Hammond to rock listeners.
On Sunday night, though, Booker showed some of his other sides. Sure, he started off with a set of organ-centered tunes, including an enthusiastically received “Green Onions” and a great version of “Hang ‘Em High.” But then he switched to guitar, an instrument he plays with charm if not great virtuosity, and revealed his vocal skills in a series of songs he had a hand in creating over his long career. Who knew that Booker had played bass on Bob Dylan’s “Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door”? And who would have thought that a musician known for his instrumentals could sing so well?
Moving back to the organ bench, Booker brought everything together with a solo rendition of Leon Russell’s plaintive “A Song For You.” The song is usually played on piano, but under Booker’s hands the Hammond revealed its expressive power—a power that Booker has been revealing since the early 60s.