A resilient songwriter grows comfortable in his own skin.
Georgia Warhorse is the fifth CD from songwriter JJ Grey and the evolving, rotating ensemble, Mofro. Since the 2001 release of the debut recording Blackwater (the band known then simply as Mofro), Grey has slowly but steadily cultivated a following among jamband, roots rock and festival fans though his sultry, swampy blend of blues and R&B that hardly classifies as improvisational or hippie rock. Rather, there’s authentic southern swagger and soul, poetic lyrics and his guttural baritone.
Grey and producer Dan Prothero haven’t strayed from the formula they developed on 2007's Country Ghetto and 2008s Orange Blossoms, a formula that often features several driving rockers, along with several swampy blues laments and aching ballads. And more than a few tracks are laced with a funky horn section again. Noticeably absent in these sessions, however, is his long time musical sidekick, guitarist Darrell Hance, who left the band amicably to pursue his own musical interests, leaving Grey to take on all six and 12-string guitars himself.
As a lyricist, Grey’s a natural storyteller, relating tales of the people, places and natural environs that surround him. Opener “Diyo Dayo” is a sweltering rocker with a sultry harmonic vamp -- it describes three characters you might find on any street corner, with steam rising from the asphalt and surrounding them, and if you listen closely enough, you might depict horns sprouting from their scalps. Both “All” and “The Hottest Spot In Hell” are up-tempo rockers featuring pumping Rhodes Organ swells, a cadence rhythm and Stax-like horns. He declares to fight the good fight against evildoers in the former, then reserves a prime spot for the worst malefactors; a tax man taking advantage of an elderly widow, someone burning Grey’s beloved Everglades, and a wife beater, in the latter.
The Blues is finely represented on Georgia Warhorse as well. “King Hummingbird” is unquestionably one of the most sublime songs he’s written or recorded. It’s an achingly beautiful, nearly seven-minute acoustic blues requiem, his fingers delicately plucking the melody on a steel six-string while the harmony is strummed on a 12-string. An avid outdoorsman, he laments from a hunter's point of view for a life of a beautiful bird he’s just taken. Taking the wildlife metaphor further, the title track is a blistering, hard driving blues cut that compares the tenacity of a jail house hardened criminal with that of a resilient grasshopper found in Northern Florida. He even growls at the bridge, “Somebody hand me that harmonica", before a slow, Howlin’ Wolf like solo. “Hide and Seek", a mid-tempo rocker with chugging guitar and funky synthesizer, is likely the most radio ready song.
“The Sweetest Thing” features the unmistakable vocals of Toots Hibbert, one of Grey’s biggest influences. Thick with Memphis soul and swing, it also features a rhythmic horn section. This could easily be a showstopper sung live, with female accompaniment. On the other hand, the scintillating slide guitar of fellow Floridian Derek Trucks augments the closer “Lullaby”, a slow building scorcher that peaks with weeping slide guitar, thundering drums, and an echoed chorus before coming to rest on Grey’s harmony guitar.
Apparently, Grey is doing his best to shed the “Mofro” name completely. A “solo” tour has been announced beginning in mid February on the west coast, and moving east in mid March. If Georgia Warhorse is an indication, it certainly seems as though this resilient grasshopper has grown comfortable in his own skin.