MOFRO :: 04.22.05 :: Abbey Pub :: Chicago, IL
MOFRO frontman JJ Grey ambles onto the Abbey Pub's small stage in a plaid workingman's shirt and tan canvas pants, with a snarl of curly hair, and Quaker beard. He's not exactly your typical rock star. He exudes the energy of a carpenter who pulls beautiful chairs from raw wood or a farmer whose hands coax life from tiny seeds - a craftsman in the truest sense. The fuss of stage clothes and personas got no business in the land of MOFRO. Their demeanor, even before a note has been played, invites us to move in closer to hear tales of disappearing wilderness and good folks on the wrong side of the tracks. They are sonic soul food, nourishing right down to one's bones and comforting in a way only a deep-fried house party band like them can be.
Scone & Grey by Jeremy Jones
It's after 11 p.m. when they arrive and not a minute too soon. The hour-plus slog of opener The Navigators tested the nerves of more than a few in the shoulder-to-shoulder crowd. The less discerning in this very Miller Genuine Draft audience nodded along absentmindedly to the Navigators' generic radio rock – a very earnest, cliché-riddled relative to what Collective Soul, Maroon 5, Phantom Planet, and dozens of other faceless acts are cranking out for Clear Channel stations every day. I've heard worse but only when I stray onto mainstream airwaves. To their credit, The Navigators played with intensity and seemed to really believe in their tales of girls with their finger on the button and other overly familiar characters. Problem is passion only works if it's in service of something that isn't so worn out that it still has some new life in it. You can scream all you want, but if you're screaming clichés, you're at a serious disadvantage. I try to give all opening acts the benefit of the doubt, but I wouldn't sit through another set by these guys. Blunt but true, and it's a bit of a mystery how they ended up opening for MOFRO.
MOFRO by Jeremy Jones
Grey carries a piece of Kentucky with him - a red wax dipped bottle of Maker's Mark bourbon. As if to prove the only thing that truly matters to them is the music, they open with a new one called "May You Have The Hottest Spot In Hell." One wonders who inspired this spurt of bile, and it occurs to me it's probably a good idea to stay on JJ's good side. He drinks straight from the bottle, and you can hear the liquid heat hit the music as they lay into mega-choogler "Dirtfloorcracker." With the same wide, natural smile he's sporting on the cover of Blackwater, Grey shouts, "Is this a party!?!" He incites us to take a pull from our own spirits, literal and figurative, and you can feel the room lift a few inches above their cares.
JJ Grey by Jeremy Jones
Hailing from the un-Disneyfied Florida countryside, MOFRO is subtle marvel Daryl Hance (guitar) and JJ Grey (vocals, guitar, harmonica, piano), aided by a changing cast of musicians currently making them a quartet with steadfast heartbeat drummer George Sluppick and marvelous Sugarman 3 key man Adam Scone (organ, keys, bass pedals). They serve up loose swamp funk, nicely distorted and packed with uncut soul. It's the same dish Tony Joe White served "Polk Salad Annie" and Muscle Shoals laid out like a backyard buffet in the late '60s. They are steeped in tradition but mimic no one, fully original in the same way as pre-plane crash Skynyrd, The Black Crowes, and the Drive-By Truckers. Marinated in Otis Redding, Duane Allman, summer sweat, and a bit of green onion for bite, MOFRO are decidedly Southern, their pervasive drawl making sure that when they say something it counts every time. You can hear all this on their two grand studio albums (splendidly produced by Fog City Records' Dan Prothero), but it's another thing to see them lay down their underlying mythology in person.
There's no staying motionless at a MOFRO gig. You may not even realize you're clapping your hands and wearing a hole in your shoe leather until you bump into another eyes-closed rock 'n' roll parishioner. When that happens, just smile and tilt your jelly jar of hooch in silent toast. By the end of their first hour in Chicago, they reaffirmed that while life has few certainties, one thing we can count on is having a ball if MOFRO is pounding it out.
MOFRO by Jeremy Jones
It would be enough that they're a fine old time, but their water is deep, so very deep. To the casual observer, JJ Grey might come off as a drunken redneck, a jook joint hollerer, but that's just a testament to the general obliviousness in this new century. Grey is like the bastard offspring of Little Feat's Lowell George and American Romantic Henry David Thoreau - a naturalist and a Friday night good time man. Listening to him distill the plight of a struggling environment with a song like "Fireflies" makes the big picture come into focus by showing us a personal example of what is being lost everyday. Hearing that and "Lochloosa"'s lament against bulldozers crushing everything we've known every five minutes on Earth Day was especially poignant - a word I do not use lightly.
If you pay attention beyond the beat and swirl, the words will poke you like a Truth thistle, sticky with things we need to hear even as we revel in our distraction. "All these boys talking loud just like they were men." "We pledge allegiance to anything that takes our mind away." "Since I was young I believed in Santa Claus, true love, and freedom." These nuggets are like handwritten notes taken from a Grandma's hand, wisdom gleaned from real living in the trenches of shit jobs, long miles, and disappointments you live down.
Daryl Hance by Jeremy Jones
In the thick of it, JJ lays down a rap about how music mimics sex. In their case it is doubly true. You could swim through the pheromones in the room, a nostril-flaring vapor rising from hips and lips and outstretched arms. They can make love to an audience, taking it slow like a hot afternoon screw, but this night they are quick and efficient, a hard shag that leaves you wet and shaken but with no regrets about what you've let them do to you. It makes you hungry for life, and I know without a doubt I'd let them do it again and again in the days ahead.
JamBase | Chicago
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