Booker T. Jones hasn’t released an album as a leader since a 1994 reunion with the MG’s, the seminal band with whom he made his name recording for Memphis’ Stax Records in the 1960s. Although he’s been somewhat active as a session player in recent years, Potato Hole marks the organist’s first significant activity since his induction into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in 1992. When news of the album’s impending release broke earlier this year, the identities of his collaborators generated much anticipation — not only did the Drive-By Truckers act as his backing band for the entire session, but Neil Young also sat in on guitar for nine of the ten tracks.
As unusual as the lineup may seem on paper, it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to trace the roots of the endeavor. Booker T. & the MG’s served as Neil Young’s band for a 1993 tour, beginning a fruitful working relationship that Young renewed for his 2002 album Are You Passionate?. Even though the Drive-By Truckers have no formal connections to Jones or Young, the band’s stellar work in a similar supporting capacity on Bettye LaVette’s 2007 release The Scene of the Crime established them as session musicians of the highest order. Also, considering that Trucker Patterson Hood’s father was the bassist for the famed Muscle Shoals Rhythm Section studio band … well, you can see how the pieces fall into place.
What’s immediately striking about Potato Hole is the total absence of fiery guitar work. With four guitarists on the session (five if you include Jones himself on three songs), two of them being Neil Young and Trucker Mike Cooley, you’d think there would be at least a couple of ripping guitar solos somewhere along the line. Instead, it’s as if each does his best Steve Cropper impression — every guitar part heard on the album is tasteful to a fault, mimicking the brilliant economy that made the MG’s guitarist so quietly influential to players of rock and soul music.
But even for listeners willing to reconcile the fact this is very much a Booker T. recording, the overly sympathetic support by Young and the DBT’s (as they’ve become known for a handful of live shows with Jones this year) offers its own set of difficulties. On tracks like “Native New Yorker” and the opening “Pound It Out”, Jones works too hard to accommodate his backing band by using simplistic riffs as the basis for semi-realized jams. The pairing produces far more successful results when it works the other way around, as on tracks like “She Breaks” and “Reunion Time”, where the only thing that distinguishes these tunes from vintage Stax MG’s cuts are running times that clock in over three minutes. The overall vibe might have benefited from more pieces like “Warped Sister”, which achieves the album’s lone synthesis of all its raw materials: The DBT rhythm section grooves along on its own terms; Young contributes some of his trademark reverb-heavy chords; and Jones floats on top, switching between melodic riffs and sustained organ drones.
Even the three cover songs do little to push the excitement level past a rolling boil. Besides a catchy, Southern-fried take on OutKast’s “Hey Ya” and an appropriately swampy reading of Tom Waits’ “Get Behind the Mule”, Jones closes the album with the Drive-By Truckers’ own “Space City”. While it’s interesting to hear the band reinterpret its own song, it loses nearly all of its emotional heft with Jones’ lightweight organ tone in place of Mike Cooley’s whiskey-wizened voice and lyrics.
While all of this might come across as an indictment of the album, it’s really not a colossal failure at all — because regardless of its inability to live up to the admittedly lofty expectations of the ensemble cast, it’s clear all involved are having one hell of a good time. The infectious atmosphere radiating from each track suggests that the listening audience’s pleasure might be a secondary concern. And for a band as hard working as the Drive-By Truckers, who can fault them for jumping at the chance to work with a pair of legends (and in Neil Young’s case, a primary influence on their own music) — even if the results don’t command more than a cursory listen?