Sunday, May 8, 2011

Booker T. & The MGs: "McLemore Avenue" (1970/2011 re-issue) Review

Booker T. & The MGs are probably most famous for "Green Onions," the coolest instrumental rock tune ever recorded. (By the way, that song was included on the compilation Stax Number Ones, released last year.) They were also the house band for Stax, and as such appeared on many recordings by a variety of artists. For example, they can be heard on Albert King's The Definitive Albert King On Stax, which was released on April 5th this year.

Booker T. & The MGs recorded and released many albums of their own as well, such as Soul Dressing (1965), Soul Limbo (1968) and McLemore Avenue (1970).

McLemore Avenue is a completely strange and delightful album. Only a year after The Beatles released Abbey Road, Booker T. & The MGs released their own version of it - reconfigured, and mostly instrumental. And done almost entirely as medleys. The only stand-alone track is George Harrison's "Something."

The album's cover is of course a direct reference to Abbey Road, with the four members crossing a street (though no cryptic license plate number is visible). And as The Beatles shot their cover near Abbey Road Studios, the cover for this album was shot outside Stax.

First Medley

The album opens with a medley that includes "Golden Slumbers," "Carry That Weight," "The End," "Here Comes The Sun" and "Come Together." "Golden Slumbers" into "Carry That Weight" is one of my favorite sections of Abbey Road, and Booker T. & The MGs do a phenomenal job with it. It's strange, for on the one hand I want to hear the lyrics, and the other hand everyone knows these words by heart and so they're not needed. It's like the guitar and the keyboards are singing them anyway.

Vocals do suddenly come in on "The End," which is a total surprise. They sing those famous lines (though a bit more slowly than in the original), "And in the end the love you take is equal to the love you make." After that, this track gets a bit weird for a few moments just before it eases into "Here Comes The Sun." This version of "Here Comes The Sun" has a wonderful groove not present in the original. At times it's pretty darn close to jazz.

The most abrupt transition is from "Here Comes The Sun" to "Come Together." Al Jackson Jr. is pretty faithful to Ringo's drumming on "Come Together," but finds places for some interesting fills. Toward the end they sing, "Come together," but the vocals are in the background. And by that point nobody is missing the vocals anyway.


If I were forced to pick a favorite Beatles song, it might be "Something." And it's in large part due to the vocals and lyrics. So I was a bit skeptical about an instrumental version. But it works. The beauty of the song is there. Though the hand-clap section caught me off guard, and is a bit jarring, and it approaches Bo Diddley territory. I do really like Booker T.'s work on keyboards. This is the only stand-alone tune on the original release.

Second Medley

The MGs next tackle one of the odder songs from Abbey Road, "Because." When do you ever hear a band cover this song? This is one of my favorite sections of this CD, though it seems like foreign territory for the MGs. If I just heard this track, I probably would not have been able to guess what band was doing it. Steve Cropper does some wonderful work on guitar.

The transition into "You Never Give Me Your Money" is a bit clunky.

Third Medley

The original album concluded with a medley containing some of the sillier songs from Abbey Road sandwiched between two of the slower and coolest tracks from that record. It starts with "Sun King," then segues into "Mean Mr. Mustard," "Polythene Pam" and "She Came In Through The Bathroom Window" before finishing with "I Want You (She's So Heavy)." "Polythene Pam" is probably the least successful and effective song on this release. Though those lyrics are fairly non-sensical, oddly it is here that they are most missed, most glaringly absent.

"She Came In Through The Bathroom Window" has a great groove. The largest part of this track is spent on "I Want You (She's So Heavy)," which is great.

Bonus Tracks

The bonus tracks linclude two versions of "You Can't Do That." The first is a really cool rendition, with delicious work by Donald "Duck" Dunn on bass. This is a great cover, because the band really makes it its own. The second version has a rawer, slower feel, and is actually even better. This second version was previously unreleased.

"Michelle" doesn't quite work as well, at times sounding dangerously close to Easy Listening elevator music.

"Eleanor Rigby" has a great steady dark groove and some nice work by both Booker T. on keys and Steve Cropper on guitar. "Lady Madonna" is really driven by the rhythm created by Donald "Duck" Dunn on bass and Al Jackson Jr. on drums. Al Jackson Jr. is sticking mostly to the toms rather than a hi-hat or ride cymbal in keeping time.

There is also a hidden track. It starts approximately four minutes into the tenth track, and is an advertisement for the album.

CD Track List

  1. Medley: Golden Slumbers/Carry That Weight/The End/Here Comes The Sun/Come Together
  2. Something
  3. Medley: Because/You Never Give Me Your Money
  4. Medley: Sun King/Mean Mr. Mustard/Polythene Pam/She Came In Through The Bathroom Window/I Want You (She's So Heavy)
  5. You Can't Do That
  6. Day Tripper
  7. Michelle
  8. Eleanor Rigby
  9. Lady Madonna
  10. You Can't Do That (alternate take)


Booker T. & The MGs are Booker T. Jones on keyboards, organ, piano, bass and guitar; Steve Cropper on guitar; Donald "Duck" Dunn on bass; and Al Jackson, Jr.on drums.

McLemore Avenue is scheduled to be released on May 10, 2011 through Concord Music Group as part of the Stax Remasters series. Two other discs from this series will be released on the same date: Johnnie Taylor: Taylored In Silk and The Staples Singers: Be Altitude: Respect Yourself.

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