Bringing It Home
John Paul Keith shows his mastery of roots music, and the legendary Booker T. Jones has assembled another fine “Memphis group.”
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I’m an old familiar tune that you used to hum/Set your watch back, baby, when you see me come,” John Paul Keith sings on the title track to his new album, The Man That Time Forgot.
Keith, even in a city that’s a magnet for tradition-minded musicians, is particularly adept at a wide variety of “roots” forms — Chuck Berry and Buddy Holly-style rock-and-roll, Tex-Mex and honky-tonk country, garage rock, early ’60s soul, folk rock, smoky jazz-blues, and Marshall Crenshaw-style power pop — and his new album’s title hints at this mastery.
“I looked at it as partly that way and partly as the state of my career,” Keith says. “I’ve been around the edge of the music business and had a couple of close calls with a wider audience but never quite got there, and the title kinda summed that up too.”
A Knoxville native, the well-traveled Keith had been in several bands in several cities — including a short-lived major-label deal for his Nashville band, the Nevers — before moving to Memphis several years ago and eventually falling in with Midtown musicians Jack Oblivian and Harlan T. Bobo, with whom Keith has now gone on two European tours.
The Man That Time Forgot, released nationally late last month, will be Keith’s second Memphis album, following 2009’s Spills & Thrills.
The new album is another showcase for Keith’s sharp songwriting and facility with different strains of classic American music.
“I try to find a way of doing something that’s interesting to me musically without it being a cliché,” Keith says. “I’m not necessarily always successful, but you try your best, especially lyrically, to find an angle or twist that hasn’t been done. I think the best songs are written without an instrument. Write the song in your head, with the melody and lyrics, without having a guitar or piano. That’s when you’re onto something.”
Often, Keith says, he’ll start with a song title and work from there. One example on The Man That Time Forgot is the jazzy “I Work at Night.”
“I had that lick for several years and couldn’t figure out how to get into the song,” Keith says. “I just came home one night and the phrase was in my head. I had been working at the Hi-Tone Café, working the door, and playing music, working at night.”
“In the middle of the night when good people sleep/That’s about the time I earn my keep,” Keith sings.
“One thing that happened after the first album came out is that I lost my day job. I had an office job for a few years and I lost it,” Keith remembers. “That freed me up to tour, so it was a blessing in a way. I was in a panic there for a few months. But I stopped panicking because I had gigs and money was coming in. It wasn’t a lot, but enough to keep the lights on. Two years later, here I am, still doing it.”
Booker T. & the MGs bandleader and Stax producer/session great Booker T. Jones hadn’t released a solo album in more than a decade when he made a comeback with 2009’s Potato Hole, on which he was accompanied by the roots-rock band the Drive-By Truckers, known more for their songs than their sound, and Neil Young, who downplayed his own guitar-hero bona fides to play judicious sideman.
Young and the Truckers have made a bundle of brilliant records between them, but needless to say they aren’t exactly the funkiest white guys with whom Jones has ever worked. And Jones finds more companionable support on his follow-up, the recent The Road From Memphis, in the form of sideman/co-producer Amir “?uestlove” Thompson, the drummer whose primary gig is as bandleader of hip-hop stalwarts the Roots.
Thompson had already done great recent work with another Memphis soul legend on Al Green’s 2008 Lay It Down, and the jazz/funk/R&B sound he helps build around Jones’ organ is more durable and lively than the bluesy rock that dominated Potato Hole.
You hear this all over The Road From Memphis’ instrumentals. The opening “Walking Papers” is airier and spikier than prime MGs but in the same vein — only post-funk (you can hear funk shading into hip-hop) where Jones’ signature band was pre-funk.
On “The Hive,” inventive, active percussion from Thompson and Stewart Killen gives a head-bobbing bed to Jones’ organ forays. And “Rent Party” is the kind of instant groove Potato Hole lacked.
The funkier sound isn’t the only difference on Jones’ new album. Where Potato Hole was all instrumental, The Road to Memphis has four vocal selections, including two Memphis-themed songs.
“Representing Memphis” is a duet between rehabbed soul star Sharon Jones and Matt Berninger of the Brooklyn alt-rock band the National. With his refined, nasal delivery, it’s hard to buy Berninger singing lines like “Love it on the south side/They know how to deep fry/Take it up to Orange Mound.” This is a song written from a local perspective (“I grew up there so don’t talk about my city”), and he doesn’t sell it. Given how nicely Jones handles the vocal on the autobiographical “Down in Memphis,” you wonder why he didn’t duet with Jones himself.
“Down in Memphis” is like a “Walking in Memphis” from the perspective of someone who has done more than his share, and not just along the tourist routes. “Doing it in the heat/Learning how to walk the beat,” Jones announces to start, before going on to drop personal references to lived-in locations — hanging out at night in Mallory Heights, searching for love at Dixie Homes — that pay tribute to musical forbears such as Rufus Thomas and WDIA’s Nat D. Williams. This is Jones’ story, and even if he’s never been known as a vocalist, he’s the one to tell it. M