MOFRO :: 09.18.04 :: Bluebird Theater :: Denver, CO
As I walked down East Colfax Street towards the Bluebird Theater, I couldn't help but notice the lady of the night hawking her wares on the corner and the shirtless gentleman taking swallows from a brown paper bag. Clearly, it's a long journey from the rural landscape of northern Florida to the gritty urban trappings of downtown Denver. In the case of MOFRO, this journey encompasses more than the miles separating the two places--it's also consumed some 15 years of time.
As my friends and I made our way into the Bluebird I was immediately struck by the sparse crowd. The Bluebird can probably fit 500 people on a good night, but there were less than 50 people inside and very few outside waiting to get in. We walked right to the front of the stage and positioned ourselves for the opening act, Mama's Cookin'.
JJ Grey by Super Dee
Mama's Cookin' walked on stage joined by none other than Cecil "Peanut" Daniels, who helped fill the sound out for their opening set. This Gunnison, Colorado group laid down a wide variety of styles, from pure funk to bluesy hip-hop. They seemed to derive their endless energy from keyboardist Todd Holway. Unfortunately, his playing was often lost in the mix, a direct result of not being able to sound check prior to the show. Nonetheless, by the end of the band's hour-long set the crowd had grown to perhaps 100 and those who were there were dancing and having a wonderful time.
When the lights dimmed at precisely 11:00 p.m. for the second time, the crowd had finally filled out. MOFRO took the stage, and with barely a nod, the opening notes of "Blackwater" washed over the audience. Mere moments after John "JJ" Grey's soulful voice first rang out, I was transported to a strand of pines at the edge of a swamp on a hot summer night. As the song progressed I realized there was no place I'd rather be on this particular evening.
The band kicked into "Florida," and by the middle of the song the Bluebird had been transformed into a full-scale tent revival meeting, fueled by the rhythm section of Adam Scone (bass) and George Sluppick (drums). Scone plays organ bass, much like one would here in a church choir where the organ traditionally supplied the bass on one side while the piano filled in the rest from the other side. Scone and Sluppick have been providing the somewhat rotating supporting roles on this tour, but MOFRO is always composed of JJ on vocals, harmonica, keyboards, and some guitar, along with Daryl Hance on slide guitar and dobro.
Adam Scone by Jeremy Jones
As the band slinked into "Lafy Fo Acre," JJ's soul dripped thick as syrup layered nicely on top of Daryl's guitar. It's this interplay that makes MOFRO so compelling. These two have clearly been together a long time and feel as comfortable together as an old pair of shoes. Throughout the entire show I did not once see any cues between them; rather Daryl spent the entire show comfortably seated and seemingly lost in his own musical journey, often with his eyes closed and his slide gracefully caressing the strings.
Daryl Hance by Jeremy Jones
MOFRO offered up numerous selections from both their debut Blackwater and their latest release Lochloosa, with the only notable omission being the one song where Daryl's slide is beautifully showcased, "Ten Thousand Islands" from Lochloosa.
MOFRO tends to work best when the music is slow and sparse, though one of the night's biggest moments was the perfect meshing of all four players during the lively "Ho Cake." This dichotomy is a big draw to their music, and you can almost see the debate forming in the crowd with one side pulling for the funk and the other for the soul. Luckily, MOFRO offered up a healthy dose of both. During the encore, JJ turned the evening into a sing along during the breezy "Air," but it lost some impact due to the thinning crowd.
The only low point of the show was JJ's soliloquy at the beginning of "Lochloosa." While it's important for JJ to let everyone knows where he's coming from, I think we can all figure that out for ourselves in the context of the music. On top of that, his vocals are often hard to discern during live performances to begin with, and virtually impossible in the context of this speech.
After seeing the show, I can only believe that MOFRO is destined for bigger and better things. My advice would be to catch them in a small club now while you still can because in the blink of an eye--much like the land in Florida JJ sings about--those days will disappear.
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