Editor’s note: Photos and a review from Thursday’s show at Crystal Bay will be posted on Friday.
Life is complicated. Much of it is spent balancing things — jobs, relationships, family, dreams, reality — all in the hopes of creating the most harmonious and fulfilling existence for ourselves. But you’ll often find that the complexities can be distilled to a few key elements and that even the grandest inventions, theories and aspirations of humankind were born from the smallest seeds.
It certainly seems true when looking at venerated swamp-rock ‘n’ soul outfit JJ Grey and Mofro. During its almost two-decade journey, the band has released seven critically acclaimed albums, toured the country and amassed a healthy and appreciative fan base. All the while, Grey has received praise for being one of this generation’s most soulful singers. It has been a long and successful career for Grey, one brought along by a simple and inherent feeling.
“I never had big dreams, just a simple idea that popped into my head,” Grey said. “I just felt drawn to music. I feel like a salmon that journeys to the sea and then swims back home. If you could interview one of them it would be like, ‘why are you trying to kill yourself jumping up these waterfalls and stuff?’ They’d say, ‘I don’t know, I just gotta go that way.’ That’s how I feel — I’ve never had any doubts.”
In a musical world of ever multiplying genres and artists mixing sound like alchemy to try and produce a unique sonic experience, JJ Grey and Mofro are a testament to the benefits of keeping it simple and not trying to reinvent the wheel.
The band is built on the Southern-fried foundation of funk, soul, blues and outlaw country of the 1960s and 1970s. It hasn’t really tried to complicate the initial formula, enriching its elemental sound over time instead of trying to crossbreed with other sounds or trends. Mofro isn’t out to make something new but rather something that is true to itself, though Grey admits he didn’t always have that perspective.
“When we started to do ‘Blackwater’ I was just young and ignorant to think I was trying to do something that no one had done before. There’s truly nothing new under the sun. These cats paved the way. Your record collection is just small enough to make you think you’re new by saying, ‘I wanna do something that is James Brown, Sly and the Family Stone, Lynyrd Skynyrd, Waylon Jennings and Otis Redding.’ There’s been a ton of other people who’ve already done that and who’ve done it great,” Grey said.
For Grey, one person was Tony Joe White, one of the first to find an intersection between Hill Country blues, soul and country. Grey admitted he found inspiration from White not only in the sound of his music but in his approach to finding the music.
“He really influenced me after the fact. Here’s this cat who wasn’t trying to do anything, he was just being Tony Joe White. It’s so real you’re like, ‘I don’t need to be nothing, I just need to show up and be me,’ whatever that it is,” Grey said.
The singer has realized much of his fulfillment and happiness in his life and career is born from a very simple notion: live in the moment. He certainly espouses that joy in the feel-good anthem “Every Minute,” with its bright refrain: “feels so good to be warm in the sun, loving every minute I’m living” delivered with blissful satisfaction. As JJ Grey and Mofro continue to do what they’ve always done — release no-frills great music and put on captivating show — you can be sure Grey will be taking in all of it moment-by-moment.
“Way back in the day, I’d do 10 shows and one out of those 10 shows I was totally in it and lost in the moment completely, in that honest real moment, for most of the show. The other nine I was in my head talking about everything that could go wrong instead of what’s really happening. What’s really happening is that music is just a tool, a pathway to get to an honest moment — where you are in that moment and nowhere else. Now it’s 10.”
— Garrett Bethmann