The Boston Phoenix November 2 - 9, 2000

[Music Reviews]

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Al Kooper: Staying and Playing

Al Kooper -- the famed musician, producer and talent scout -- almost left Boston this year. He had his reasons, and a big one was the lack of performing opportunities he found here. When he moved to this city from Nashville a few years ago, taking a teaching gig at Berklee College of Music, he figured he'd find kindred spirits to play with. Not the case, said Al, so he set his sights on Woodstock, which he jokingly calls a Miami for veteran New York City musicians like himself.

But somewhere along the road to nowhere (sorry, Woodstock, but you're boring), he changed his mind. I'm glad. Kooper is too valuable an asset to be surrendered lightly. Who else around here -- besides Peter Wolf and the other J. Geils guys -- can turn a concert into a high-energy seminar on the joys of authentic R&B ensemble playing? Kooper's ability to recharge the batteries of the little-big-band sound that was the stuff early rock and roll and the greatest soul hits were made of is estimable. And speaking of soul: how often do you feel the musicians you hear anywhere -- whether they're playing rock, jazz, blues, rap, or classical -- have that precious commodity?

Kooper, who's 56, delivered four nights of soul at the House of Blues in Cambridge last month, playing every Tuesday except Halloween. Walking in on the final set of his residency, October 24, was like stepping inside Mr. Peabody's Way-Back Machine. Saxist Daryl Lowery and trumpeter Jeff Stout were burning, guitarist Bob Doezema was making like Steve Cropper on crank, bassist Tom Stein and drummer Larry Finn were wallowing in Memphis stew, and Kooper was hunched over his B-3 organ pulling slide bars and pressing keys like a mad scientist unraveling the music's mysteries. Indeed, he has at last found a group of Bostonians to play with in this group of fellow Berklee profs he calls the Funky Faculty.

The surprise was the breadth of his material -- even the instrumentals, which reached down into the gutbucket for the Booker T. & the MG's stomp "Green Onions" and then to an original that started as dirty funk before connecting the dots between '70s fusion and art rock. The delight was hearing Kooper plumb his own song catalogue: he revisited his greatest recordings and aired brand-new numbers like "Going, Going, Gone," a ditty about the changes one sees growing old -- and curmudgeonly -- that he wrote with Dan Penn.

The high point was "I Love You More Than You'll Ever Know," Kooper's showpiece from one of his crowning achievements, 1967's debut Blood, Sweat and Tears album, Child Is Father to the Man (Columbia). Slowly squeezing notes from his throat, pushing his keening high range into the swoops and cries that signify soul, he milked everything from its dewy-eyed lyrics. Then he did the same from his organ solo, moving from right-hand R&B filigrees to deliciously hammy quotes from Procol Harum and Aaron Copland. Old-school? Of course. But also timeless in its ability to tug heartstrings and satisfy. Hey, Al, thanks for hangin'.

-- Ted Drozdowski
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