Album Review: Booker T & the MGs – McLemore Avenue

Tribute albums are a common, generally unexciting fixture of the modern music scene. The formula is, well, formulaic: round up an allstar cast of current flashes in the proverbial pan, and have them cover (generally none-too-well) the songs of a given artist. Sometimes it works well, but it’s the exception that always proves the rule.

None of this was the case way back in 1969. Organist Booker T. Jones had and idea that was well outside the box: record a reinterpretation of (most of) The Beatles’ Abbey Road, an album that had just come out to great acclaim. His group, Booker T & the MGs were (and remain) the epitome of taste and the embodiment of Stax soul. (How could they not be the latter, having played on most of it.)

Still, attempting an album that was in every way a studio creation — the Beatles long since having given up public performance – was a challenge; not everything would work. So in creating McLemore Avenue, Jones picked and chose from the original album’s tracks. He dropped a few that didn’t make sense in his perceived re-imagining of the LP, including “Maxwell’s Silver Hammer.” Chances are, no one minded then. Tracks like “I Want You (She’s So Heavy)” translate surprisingly well to the Stax idiom; the ones left off wouldn’t have.

Abbey Road is a lot of things – almost all of them indescribably great – but one thing it isn’t is funky. But you’d never know that listening to McLemore Avenue.  The band turns many of the songs on their head, wringing out a heretofore unheard soulfulness.

Of particular interest is a strange reinvention of George Harrison’s “Here Comes the Sun,” included on McLemore Avenue as part of a fifteen-minute medley. Gurgling synthesizer on a Booker T & the MGs album? Well, I never! Until now, that is. Jones doesn’t once ape the melodic line of any Moog parts from the original Abbey Road, but he adds some interesting flourishes of his own. Here, the song is a keyboard showcase, serving up heaping helpings of organ (in several different textures) and some delightfully MOR-styled (yes, I meant that) piano. At point, it even swings a la the showier end of Ray Charles.

The MGs play it surprisingly straight on the “Come Together’ section of the first medley; but it’s a revelation to hear Al Jackson play the tom fills on the song; he somehow manages the feat of (a) playing just like Ringo and (b) not sounding the least bit like Ringo.

Other than the standalone “Something,” the entirety of McLemore Avenue is arranged around medleys. Overall the record is almost a Jones solo album with Al Jackson, Duck Dunn, and Steve Cropper as backing musicians. But Cropper turns in some funky, fiery fretwork, especially on the second half of “Something.” And while Jones hammers out an insistent set of piano chords, Dunn thumps some fine, atypically adventurous bass. Clearly the guys were having fun on these sessions.

There are little gems throughout the disc, but I keep coming back to Booker T. His clavinet on “You Never Give Me Your Money” is accompanied by piano and organ; typical of all the tracks, there is a lot of keyboard on this record. His dreamy organ washes on  “Sun King” are understated, elegant and punctuated perfectly by Jackson’s tom-centric drum arrangement.

The original vinyl isn’t impossible to find, but it’s not nearly as common in used record bins as other Booker T & the MGs titles. McLemore Avenue has been issued on CD no less than seven times – 1990, 1991, 2003, 2004, 2005, 2007 and now 2011. But the newest reissue ups the ante by including a half dozen bonus tracks, all covers of earlier Beatles material. To be fair, if you own Stax Does the Beatles, you have three of these already, but an alternate take (previously unreleased) of “You Can’t Do That” (originally on The Beatles’ Second Album – hey: I’m an American, so that’s where it is in my collection) is a true bonus no matter how you slice it.

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Disclosure of Material Connection:

I have a material connection because I received a sample or review copy, or an item of nominal value that I can keep for consideration in preparing to write this content. I was/am expected to return this item after my review.