Booker T has had a hand (well, two hands) in crafting so many pop, soul and R&B staples that the hardest part of his pre-concert routine must be making out his set list. Where do you put "Green Onions"? How many of the dozens of Stax classics you either wrote, co-wrote or played on do you include? How many new songs? What about the hundreds of other people's recordings you've either produced or played on - do you dare put in anything from the A Star Is Born soundtrack? However long it took him, Booker T seemed to have figured it out just fine by the time he went onstage around 10:15 Saturday night at Wired Live. The 65-year-old legend, who could easily pass for his late 40s, stitched together new material and a smattering of Stax nuggets into a smooth 90-minute groove both steered and supported by his fluid Hammond B-3. Several songs from last year's Grammy-winning Potato Hole carried a distinct classic-rock stamp, the byproduct of Booker T's choice of backing band on the album - crunchy Southern rockers Drive-By Truckers, along with scattered guitar parts from his old buddy Neil Young. Potato's "Pound It Out" and "Native New Yorker" retained their gnarly DBT riffs live, while "Warped Sister" was a Traffic-y jam and "Potato Hole" itself bumped along like an alternate take of The Who's "Eminence Front."
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Others had a much more pronounced hip-hop flavor. Booker T opened the show by announcing he had just recorded the opener, "Harlem House," with the Roots, and it sounded exactly like you would expect from such a pairing; i.e. loose, funky and alive. It left Aftermath wondering why it took so long for someone to think of putting them into the studio together, and how long we're going to have to wait for that album to come out. Drummer Darian Gray updated Booker's "Hip Hug Her" and Sam & Dave's "Hold On, I'm Coming" by inserting some nimble freestyle verses into each, which left us hoping that Roots album has at least a couple similar Stax updates. "Green Onions," meanwhile, came fourth and punctuated by Brendan "Ice" Black and Troy Gagnier's nimble guitar solos, sounding as farmer's-market fresh as ever.
But Booker didn't let his fingers do all the talking. After announcing he used to listen to B.B. King on the radio as a Memphis youngster - just as we suspected - he sang lead on a crushing, potent version of Albert King's "Born Under a Bad Sign" (which he co-wrote) and later stepped away from the B-3 for some more Stax goodness in the form of "Hold On, I'm Coming" and Otis Redding's "Dock of the Bay." His voice may lack the range of Redding or Sam Moore, but it was full-bodied and more than up to the task. "Ain't No Sunshine," which he produced for his friend Bill Withers, brought a collective swoon from the crowd and some very dirty dancing from one party in the back of the room. Instrumental music is a tough sell, and Saturday night's crowd could have easily have fit into the Continental Club (which wouldn't be a bad idea should Booker decided he wants to come back). But they made up for in enthusiasm and respect what they lacked in numbers - they were there to see a legend do his thing, and he didn't disappoint in the slightest. Even if we're going to have to wait until next time for "Evergreen."