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Friday, February 27, 2015

JJ Grey & MOFRO March 1 at the Intersection

Photo by Jim Arbogast

It’s been a tough year for blues-based band institutions from the southeastern part of the US. The Allman Brothers Band called an end to their long and storied career; they go out on top. Chris Robinson of the Black Crowes throws the towel directly at the other founding members of the band; the Crowes limp to the sideline for now. Bands Galactic and Dumpstafunk are still up and running although their New Orleans funk qualifies them for categorization of their own. As horn-driven, Hammond organ-grounded, soul singer-led, recording and touring acts go JJ Grey & MOFRO and the Tedeschi Trucks band remain atop a dwindling lot.

Grand Rapids music lovers get a rare chance to see a southern soul music scene contender when JJ Grey & MOFRO, America’s premier rock/funk/blues/jam band, makes a March 1 stop at the Intersection in Grand Rapids.

Tedeschi Trucks and JJ Grey go back many years now and both approach their zenith at about the same time. Plus they share more than a geographic association: MOFRO’s Todd Smallie played bass with the Derek Trucks Band for 15 years.  

“Susan Tedeschi and Derek Trucks are the matriarchs and patriarchs at the top now,” Grey said on the way to a recent tour stop in New York. “I wouldn’t be able to do what I do today if it wasn’t for them. Susan’s given me so many opportunities back in the day to open up for her. Derek obviously did for years and they still do.”

“It’s great to see Tedeschi Trucks doing so well. I think it inspires other bands and cats like us at the lower level. They're lighting the way, so to speak.”

Grey is a singer/songwriter at heart, trapped in a surfer’s body. And like a lot of surfers growing up in Jacksonville FL he felt the impact of the hip-hop movement early on. Grey recalls kids from high school, with aspirations of becoming DJs, pretending to scratch records on imaginary turntables on the dashboard of their cars.

“I just downloaded By the Time I Get to Arizona by Public Enemy the other day,” Grey confided. “I’m a big fan of Hank Shocklee (Public Enemy Bomb Squad) and Chuck D’s voice. I loved all that stuff: Run/DMC, Sugar Hill Gang, the Beasties.”

Even before the hip-hop bug bit Grey, he recognized how the songs of his biggest musical hero, country funk pioneer Jerry Reed (Lord, Mr. Ford), were partly spoken and partly sung. Grey cites his own songs in that vein as “70 percent Jerry, 30 percent hip-hop influenced.” So if you detected a hint of spoken word on Grey’s song “Your Lady, She’s Shady,” which Grey now says is “70 percent hip-hop, 30 percent Reed,” you are correct.

“I wanted to tell that story but it didn’t make any sense to just sing-it, sing-it. It made more sense to do it like Reed and talk-sing it.”

Grey plays guitar and harmonica in performance but he’s primarily a soul singer and lyricist with original compositions. He’s certainly not down with telling anyone how to feel or what to think. But if you go to one of his shows to forgo life’s reality for a spell, as people often do, Grey suggests that you be open to all manner of truth. In other words you might go instead to embrace reality for a couple of hours rather than not.

“How great the show is always rests on one factor: how much are you are truly there?” Grey said. “How far are you willing to go into all the moments while you’re there? The deeper you go into that, the more real everything is. The more real it gets the better the chance you’ll have a real relationship with yourself and everyone around you. My goal is to share an honest moment with everybody.”

JJ Grey & MOFRO wsg The London Souls, 7pm, Sunday at The Intersection in Grand Rapids

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