Outside the Lines: JJ Grey & Mofro
By: Dallas Terry
Current Location: Florida
Most Recent Release: This River (2013) – Alligator Records
For Fans of: Uncle Lucius, Paul Thorn, Josh Weathers
For those of you who have been following the “Outside the Lines” column this summer, you may have noticed a common thread in my musical taste: soul. I can truthfully claim that there is not a band on the road today that has more soul than JJ Grey and his band Mofro. That’s right, I said it. Although there has been some recent popularity for soul-based musicians in the Texas/Red-Dirt/Americana community such as Uncle Lucius and Josh Weathers, some acts have been overlooked due to their geographic location and/or genre misplacement. JJ Grey & Mofro is one of these bands.
Just like Oklahoma created the label “Red-Dirt” for their regionally unique music, JJ Grey has created a sound so deeply rooted in his rural Florida swamp surroundings that it probably deserves a genre name of its own. Although they have been signed to Alligator Records (a famous blues label based out of Chicago) since 2007, the band’s music leans more towards the sounds of Muscle Shoals rather than Chicago blues; think Stinky Fingers-era Rolling Stones mixed with some Wilson Pickett and The Band. When asked about it, JJ Grey simply refers to his sound as “Front Porch Soul.”
As many Texas music fans know, very few artists signed to record deals are ever awarded complete creative control over their records. JJ Grey is one of the only artists on Alligator Records’ roster that is awarded this freedom. Grey is one of the hardest working musicians around. In the studio, he plays guitar, harmonica, bass, drums, horns, and even sings his own backup vocals in order to get the arrangements tight before the band joins him. Did I mention that Grey is also an unbelievable songwriter? He does everything except draw his own album artwork… Oh wait, he does that too.
This, however, does not take away from the unique artistic talent and musical abilities of each of the members of Mofro. Texas’ own Andrew Trube lights up the stage with his roadhouse-style of electric guitar, slide guitar, and lapsteel. Trube’s partner-in-crime, Anthony Farrell, plays organ and keys like a madman, contributing to the swampy, humid sound of the band. The other Anthony in the band, Anthony Cole, keeps a backbeat not unlike Levon Helm himself, singing backup vocals as well. Bass player Todd Smallie won a Grammy with the Derek Trucks Band before joining Mofro after the band dismembered. Lastly, the two-piece horn section of trumpet player Dennis Marion and saxophone player Art Edmaiston keep things spicy with their jazz flavored tones, choreographed dance moves, and frequest brass battles.
Furthermore, during their live performances JJ Grey & Mofro is a cohesive masterpiece. The band has more chemistry than Troy Aikman and Michael Irvin in their prime. Their free-form jam-based live shows often yield surprising twists and turns, call-and-response style solos, and completely improvised full-band jams. Grey himself will often carry the improvisation with his excellent harmonica and/or guitar playing. Their live setlists are just as eclectic as their albums, often going from 10-minute full band jams to solo acoustic guitar ballads to fiery Swamp-rock shuffles.
JJ Grey & Mofro’s studio recordings have always been fantastic, although the band has definitely improved their output since joining Alligator Records in ’07. When approaching the band’s music, 2010’s Georgia Warhorse is a perfect place to start, as it showcases all of the band’s many talents while still creating a consistent and cohesive sound. Brighter Days, a live album, is a must have for any live music fan; the accompanying live DVD/documentary is just as interesting as the CD. The band’s latest album, This River, was released in April of this year to much critical acclaim. The album is by far the most reflective of their full-band live sound to date.
JJ Grey’s voice is the embodiment of Southern soul. For any fan of Southern music, live music, and music from the heart and soul, JJ Grey & Mofro is everything one could ask for and then some.
Songs to check out: “Lochloosa,” “Georgia Warhorse,” “King Hummingbird,” “This River”