This isn't the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. The list of upcoming artists beaming on a nearby screen includes artists like Nothing But Saxes, billed as "a smooth jazz experience." The menu includes items that feel more a propos to a Chili's than a rock venue. You can nibble on jalapeno cheese dip and hot wings as you take in the show. Then there's the audience that's steadily packing the Soiled Dove Underground on this Friday night. They're well-to-do couples on dates, decked in nice suits and understated dresses. They're grizzled music fans from another age, sporting white hair and ordering martinis. It's hard to connect the venue and the crowd with what was once a revolutionary brand of R&B, music that re-fit pop music with a harder edge and deeper degree of soul. But the disconnect disappears mere minutes after Booker T. Jones and his band start playing.
A trio of guitar, bass and drums lays down a funk-infused groove as an introduction. Drummer Darian Gray breaks in to offer an introduction befitting of a musical legend. Here comes Booker T. Jones, Stax Records veteran, Rock and Roll Hall of Famer, political activist. Here comes the man who earned multiple Grammies for his work with legends like Sam and Dave and Otis Redding, the player who penned instrumentals like "Green Onions" and blues anthems like "Born Under a Bad Sign" that remain staples of American pop music. Then the man himself emerges, seats himself primly at his Hammond organ and begins to lay down the signature blocky chords and thoughtful, funky melodies that secured his spot as a musical legend.
Suddenly, the Soiled Dove Underground feels like the perfect place for this performance. That unsettling sense of sterile kitsch evaporates. The band is in its element here, and the ambiance suddenly makes sense. The 300-seat venue, located under the Tavern restaurant in Lowry, is misleading. This not a themed restaurant, a mere extension of the sports bar format from upstairs. This isn't solely a refuge for smooth jazz artists and baby boomers looking for a casual first date. The music plays into the fundamental layout and feel of this club, and that much is clear from the way Booker T. and the band deliver.
First and foremost is the sound. Booker T.'s warm organ lines find the perfect amount of resonance and projection. The shredding guitar solos by Vernon "Ice" Black, the seamless bass lines of Melvin Brannon Jr. and the spot-on drum work by Darian Gray all find a perfectly discernible role in the mix. So too, does the guitar solos by Jones' son, Ted, when he appears on stage to play on some of Booker T.'s best-known R&B anthems, tunes like "Green Onions" and "Hip Hug Her." When owner Frank Schultz opened this place in 2006, he made sure sound quality went into everything from the construction materials to the layout. That attention to detail paid off. The scale may be small relative to an arena and the mood may veer into the lounge realm, but this is a venue that can host a Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductee and do the performance justice. It's a venue that boasts a brand of immediacy and comfort that isn't easy to pull off.
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And that mood fits this band perfectly. Booker T.'s soft-spoken asides between songs come off loud and clear. His stints on electric guitar could easily get drowned out in a bigger hall. With a picking style that relies entirely on finger work and a vocal delivery that's far from flashy, Booker T.'s delivery on covers like Jimi Hendrix's "Hey Joe" and Stephen Stills' "Love the One You're With" could easily fall flat in the wrong venue.
But such moments work on this stage, in this basement venue crowded with an audience that, for the most part, is solidly north of 45 years old. As the program progresses, the age range makes sense. At the strains of "Born Under a Bad Sign" and "Time Is Tight," gleams of sheer joy cross the faces of those seated at the bar and at restaurant tables near the stage. Such are the looks of fans remembering when those tunes came out in the late '60s, when singles bearing legendary personnel like Donald "Duck" Dunn and Steve Cropper refit the equation for R&B and pop music in general. Such are the expressions of fans who've seen Booker T. in much less comfy circumstances over a timespan of decades.
It's hard to imagine seeing those kinds of reactions in a theater the size of the Ogden or the Paramount. Suddenly, the glossy portraits of legendary musicians on the wall near the entryway make sense. This is a place that would do justice to players like B.B. King. This is a place where an artist like Booker T. Jones, who legitimately claims the title of modern music legend, can play a gig that feels like an impromptu meeting of friends.
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