On Friday night the Granada resembled Harlem’s fabled Apollo, or any of the other wonderful theaters on the circuit that has traditionally supported great black music. The occasion was the opening night of a group tour of Memphis musicians that’s headlined by Booker T Jones. Booker T is the one who has a remarkable new album, Sound the Alarm, to promote, but it was the bass playing bandleader James Alexander and his band the Bar-Kays that held the night together. The Bar-Kays played their greatest hit, “Soulfinger,” and convincing versions of many Stax classics, including a medley of songs by Otis Redding, but most of all, they got the groove on that anchored a succession of hot singers — Eddie Floyd, Jean Knight, and William Bell — and that propelled a few wild rides on the organ featuring Booker T. Purists might question their choice to play this funky music without the benefit of a horn section, but the synth lines and samples that the Bar-Kays introduced in place of the familiar sax riffs from the Stax records were unobjectionable. They did little to detract from, if nothing to promote, the excellent quality of the sound. This was a great show to convince any remaining doubters of the Granada’s tremendous potential as a venue for amplified music.
Despite the valiant efforts of Alexander’s badass Bar-Kays, the show was uneven, and did not necessarily do justice to the quality of Jones’ recent work, which has been getting frequent airplay on KCRW, and is full of guest spots by hot young artists like Mayer Hawthorne, Gary Clark Jr. and Estelle. Jones was in fine form, ripping through a dynamic duet with the Bar-Kays’ guitarist on “Green Onions,” then pumping his Hammond B3 through rollicking versions of “Time Is Tight” and “Hang ‘em High,” both atmospheric groove classics from the days of the MGs. But he only played in one of the night’s two sets, and even then it felt like he was back off stage in the blink of an eye, as were the billed singers. This left a vocally challenged but dogged Larry Dodson to carry too much of the program’s primetime. The balance and flow that keep a show like this one in line with all the great contemporary neo-soul that we’ve been blessed with these last few years and out of the drudgery associated with state fair-style oldies revues are delicate things, and once you’ve lost them, they don’t come back.