Reviving the Rhythm & Blues with Shakura S’Aida and Booker T. Jones

Back when I played in my high school’s jazz band, “Green Onions” was a critical part of our repertoire. Between the clean, syncopated guitar strum, the driving bass groove and the classic organ tone, the song initiated many a jam session with its legendary riff. So when I heard that Booker T. Jones would be performing at this year’s Toronto Jazz Festival, I knew that catching his performance was a must.

As I walked into Nathan Philips Square at quarter to 8, there was already a huge line waiting outside the Toronto Star Main Stage entrance. Luckily, New York’s Afro-funk outfit Ikebe Shakedown was grooving on the Outdoor Stage to a horn-centric cover of Isaac Hayes' “No Name Bar.” Their synchronized brass section filled the plaza with fluttering solos and in-your-face pops to relieve the anticipation, and by the end of their set the line had flocked inside the tent. I found myself a spot with a direct view of the Hammond B3, the mere sight of it bringing back memories of performing with my high school quintet. I couldn’t take my eyes off of it: just over fifty years ago Jones revolutionized the sound of modern soul with this very instrument, and its presence had me in a fit of excitement.

As the show’s 8:30 start came around, opening act Shakura S’Aida waltzed towards the mic, snapping fingers and oohing softly with her band. Her raspy lower register entranced the crowd before breaking into monologue, soon after breaking into a bluesy 12-bar number “I Cried Like a Baby.” An actress as well as a singer, S’Aida knows how to put on a captivating show: the rattle of the snare and chug of the guitar in “Blues Dancing” put S’Aida in a dancing mood, and she got the crowd to join her with only slight hesitancy. S’Aida maintained a raw connection with the music as her voice found its wings in the minor harmonic scales of Billie Holiday’s “Tell Me More” and in her original track “Don’t Tell Mama Where Her Children Hide.” Her rhythmic virtuosity and expressive timbre were on display in vocal vamps and bends that had me on my toes for what note she might hit next. It’s the kind of technique that can’t be taught—this was pure, natural talent.

Her band had impressive chops as well. Lance Anderson stirred up a stellar boogie woogie on the keys for the "Queen of Rock n Soul", and the guitars blended well with their contrast of distorted Marshall and clean Fender tones. Guitarist Heather Crawford particularly knew just when to bend and hold the strings to draw the listener into her crisp licks. The band rounded out their set with the title track off their most recent album Time, resulting in a roaring applause from the audience.

After a brief fifteen minute intermission Booker T.’s band started up, rolling into an instrumental to prepare the scene. Jones moseyed across the stage with a steady glide, a full-toothed grin plastered on his face as he looked into the crowd. The winner of a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award and inductee of the Rock n Roll Hall of Fame appeared deeply humbled by the ecstatic response from the crowd. Like a magnet, Jones slowly paced his way towards he Hammond, and when he tapped out the opening line of “Hang ‘Em High,” a sudden rush came through me. I watched as his fingers crawled across the keys, the heavy drone and gritty vibrato ripping through the sonic explosion that brought the song to a crashing completion.

The whole band, including Booker T.’s own son Ted Jones shredding on the Telecaster, brought a unique sound colour, their virtuosic playing style evident in the range of tonal variety each member could juice out of their instrument. Darian Gray gave a raucous, Latin-infused drum solo during "Soul Limbo", his toms and disengaged snare becoming a congo rhythm crashing with the waves of his cymbals. In “Melting Pot,” Vernon Black screamed and stumbled with his guitar with shamble of augmented progressions and groans from the top of the neck. And I can’t forget Melvin Brandon’s follow-up slap bass, furiously banging out a triplet rhythm that would even be difficult for the drums to capture. What brought it all together was Booker T.’s ear for timbre. Jones knew just when to shift his organ from the warm, honey-like drawl to a dirty crunch, effortlessly flicking at the switches. These changes in sound affected the whole atmosphere around the band, the Square traveling from the centre of the classic Memphis Blues sound on Beale St. in a Muddy Waters cover to the gospel churches of the south through the organ rumble in “Time Is Tight.”

But most captivating was Booker T’s intimate and airy voice that swooned the crowd. The way he spoke between songs was as if he were chatting with a close friend on a back porch, flipping through an old collection of photos. Each song had its own backstory, taking us on a journey through the ‘60s and ‘70s. All of a sudden I’m at the Monterey Pop Festival, standing beside Booker T. as he watches Jimi Hendrix until Jones breaks the illusion through the shimmering guitar in “Hey Joe.” Before “Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door,” he tells the audience how Bob Dylan came late one night to his door to ask him to track bass for the song. It’s a nostalgic trip into the past for him as well.

Between a beautiful father-son rendition of “Purple Rain” and the rock-out encore “Don’t Let Me Down” that had us all scrambling back under the tent, there was still nothing quite as magical for me as “Green Onions.” At first the crowd whooped in excitement, but as Booker T. really got into his groove, we all turned to stone, hypnotized by the legend himself. From slippery runs to Morse code-esque bleeps, Booker T. Jones was in his element. For him, it was 1962 with the M.G.’s when he was just 17. As for me, I was jamming with the quintet in my mind. And that’s what the night was, really: the ultimate jam session.

The night was like a photo album of memories when it came to a close. I even found myself texting my old bandmate, telling him about the show. It was another one for the scrapbooks, Booker T. Jones smiling as he strolled off the stage to ease into what awaited him in the post-show moments of the present.

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