(Note to patrons: If you subscribe to this site via e-mail, you got at least some of the following post yesterday afternoon, when WordPress decided to publish it before I finished writing it. I suppose it’s futile to fight back against our encroaching robot overlords, but I continue to try.)
In the spring of 1969, I heard a song on my parents’ radio station that I liked. There was something about the way the notes came together, or maybe its organ sound, or something in the rhythm. I remember being a little frustrated because the song didn’t have any words, and so I couldn’t tell what it was called. At least not until the day I heard the announcer say, “That’s Booker T. and the MGs with ‘Time Is Tight.'” I liked the sound of both the name “Booker T. and the MGs” and the phrase “Time Is Tight.”
I’d hear Booker T. and the MGs from time to time in years to come. WLS played their last hit single, “Melting Pot,” for a while in the spring of 1971. At the end of the 70s, I knew that Booker T. produced Willie Nelson’s brilliant Stardust and Pretty Paper albums. When Steve Cropper and Duck Dunn became sidemen for the Blues Brothers, I knew where they’d come from. In the 90s, I bought In the Christmas Spirit, the incredible holiday album by the band, but for a long time it was the only Booker T. and the MGs music in my collection. In the early 00s, I picked up the three-CD compilation Time Is Tight, which covered the group’s glory days, from 1962 to 1971. I read Rob Bowman’s Soulsville USA, the history of Stax Records, and it was most likely not until then that I realized that Booker T. and the MGs were the house band on all the great Stax hits. The depth of Booker T.’s musical knowledge and the breadth of his band’s experience was astounding. After that, I got every Booker T. and the MGs album I could lay my hands on.
Last winter, it was announced that Booker T. would headline Metro Jam, a daylong free music festival in Manitowoc, Wisconsin, a town on Lake Michigan between Green Bay and Milwaukee about 2 1/2 hours from Madison. And so, we block out Saturday, June 15, and when the day comes, we make the trip to the show.
On a chilly, gray night, the band comes out on a little outdoor bandshell and hits up a low, rumbly opening that turns into a simmering groove, then Booker T. walks out, moving like the 74-year-old man he is. He smiles broadly, accepting the cheers from the crowd, sits down at the organ, and plays the opening lines of “Hang ’em High.”
It sounds so good that the night immediately becomes more than just another concert.
He plays “Green Onions,” “Hip-Hug Her,” “Soul Dressing,” and other familiar songs. He mentions the MGs’ Beatles tribute album McLemore Avenue and once having had lunch with George Harrison before he plays “Something.” He picks up a guitar for a lovely and surprising version of “Purple Rain,” which has been part of his shows for several years. He plays some blues and his son, lead guitarist in the band, sings.
During the first set, I go up toward the stage and join the people standing there, not so much because we can’t see all that well from where we’re sitting (although we can’t), but because I want to be close to where this magnificent stuff is coming from. I eventually return to our seats, but I’m not there very long. During the second set, I’m drawn back up to the front, and I am there when the band plays “Time Is Tight.”
As the song washes over me, I feel a sense of awe at the 50-year journey from first hearing “Time Is Tight” on the radio as a boy to hearing it live on this night. And it occurs to me that what I am feeling must be what it’s like when a religious person is overwhelmed in the presence of the power and the glory.
Or to put it another way, “This is fking awesome, and I am so glad to be here.”
I have been fortunate to see some legendary stars doing their greatest songs live, including Paul McCartney doing “Yesterday,” Ray Charles singing “Georgia on My Mind,” Steve Winwood doing “Gimme Some Lovin’,” and Mavis Staples singing “I’ll Take You There,” but Booker T. Jones playing “Time Is Tight” just might beat them all.