Jacksonville’s JJ Grey has been delivering his brand of funky, countrified blues-rock to true-believing audiences ever since his debut album Blackwater was unleashed in 2007. Grey’s voice is soulful, scratchy and impassioned, as capable of crooning a tender ballad as unleashing a fiery torrent worthy of a hard rock band in its prime. With a string of memorable albums already under his belt that includes 2008’s Orange Blossoms and 2010’s Georgia Warhorse, Grey and his band Mofro have now released a combination live album and DVD set documenting a recent performance in Atlanta. The set is a scorcher, and should be powerful enough to make a believer out of anybody with a pulse.
The CD performance opens with “Country Ghetto”, a rollicking little number from the 2007 album of the same name, then swoons a little too quickly into “A Woman”, a downtempo song that tries to channel the softer soul side of the band. But it’s the eight-minute-plus “Brighter Days” that really ups the intensity here, a song that utilizes Grey’s throaty wistfulness in a nostalgic ode to the way things used to be. The band is tight throughout the album, and they are spot-on here, especially Andrew Trube’s understated guitar playing and Anthony Cole’s propulsive percussion. The brass section is nicely mixed down, supporting the tune without dominating it.
The set will be known to the Mofro faithful—there are no unexpected cover versions of Kraftwek or anything—and the stomping live rendition of “War”, the bouncy “Orange Blossoms” and tongue-in-cheek “Ho Cake” will satisfy longtime fans while engaging newcomers as well. The sound quality and balance are excellent throughout, capturing the razor-sharp band in its prime. “Lochloosa” opens with a monologue from Grey which may not have a great deal of replay value, but the song is tight nevertheless. A good many songs are stretched into six-to-eleven-minute territory, which is only a good thing for a band with these kinds of chops.
The set swells into greatness over the last three songs. “The Sweetest Thing” manages to be rousing and tender at the same time, and the way the audience belts out the chorus is unexpectedly moving. Its eight-minute epicness is eclipsed by the nine-plus of “The Sun Is Shining Down”, a passionately hopeful ballad that still manages to evoke a powerful sense of wistfulness and nostalgia. Maybe it’s me, but one of the great things about this band is that the happy songs are never just happy, and the sad ones are never merely sad. The CD set wraps up with a satisfyingly robust version of “On Fire”, a midtempo country-funk workout that sends away the audience, and the listener, enervated but content.
The DVD adds three more songs: “Hide & Seek”, “Slow, Hot & Sweaty”, and “King Hummingbird”, for another 16 or so minutes of concert footage. These tunes are all from Georgia Warhorse, and all are strong performances. The DVD concert, which benefits from great sound quality and engaging camera work, is interspersed with talking-head snippets by or about Grey and the band. They’re interesting enough, particularly the glimpses into the studio, but inevitably they interrupt the flow of the performance. There are some changes in the list from the CD—the set begins with the incendiery “War” and ends with “The Sweetest Thing”—maybe to better work in those extra songs. There are no extras on the disc, but the pre-concert opening scenes and between-song interludes provide a glimpse into Grey’s background and creative process.
Grety and Mofro are a national treasure. Fans: check this out. Newcomers: this is a great place to start.