JJ Grey & Mofro

JJ Grey & Mofro

From the days of playing greasy local juke joints to headlining major festivals, JJ Grey remains an
unfettered, blissful performer, singing with a blue-collared spirit over the bone-deep grooves of his
compositions. His presence before an audience is something startling and immediate, at times a funk
rave-up, other times a sort of mass-absolution for the mortal weaknesses that make him and his
audience human. When you see JJ Grey and his band Mofro live—and you truly, absolutely must—the
man is fearless.
Onstage, Grey delivers his songs with compassion and a relentless honesty, but perhaps not until Ol’
Glory has a studio record captured the fierceness and intimacy that defines a Grey live performance. “I
wanted that crucial lived-in feel,” Grey says of Ol’ Glory, and here he hits his mark. On the new album,
Grey and his current Mofro lineup offer grace and groove in equal measure, with an easygoing quality
to the production that makes those beautiful muscular drum-breaks sound as though the band has set
up in your living room.
Despite a redoubtable stage presence, Grey does get performance anxiety—specifically, when he's
suspended 50 feet above the soil of his pecan grove, clearing moss from the upper trees.
“The tops of the trees are even worse,” he laughs, “say closer to 70, maybe even 80 feet. I'm not
phobic about heights, but I don't think anyone's crazy about getting up in a bucket and swinging all
around. I wanted to fertilize this year but didn't get a chance. This February I will, about two tons—to
feed the trees.”
When he isn't touring, Grey exerts his prodigious energies on the family land, a former chicken-farm
that was run by his maternal grandmother and grandfather. The farm boasts a recording studio, a
warehouse that doubles as Grey's gym, an open-air barn, and of course those 50-odd pecan trees
that occasionally require Grey to go airborne with his sprayer.
For devoted listeners, there is something fitting, even affirmative in Grey's commitment to the land of
his north Florida home. The farms and eddying swamps of his youth are as much a part of Grey's
music as the Louisiana swamp-blues tradition, or the singer's collection of old Stax records.
As a boy, Grey was drawn to country-rockers, including Jerry Reed, and to Otis Redding and the other
luminaries of Memphis soul; Run-D.M.C., meanwhile, played on repeat in the parking lot of his high
school (note the hip-hop inflections on “A Night to Remember”). Merging these traditions, and working
with a blue-collar ethic that brooked no bullshit, Grey began touring as Mofro in the late '90s, with
backbeats that crossed Steve Cropper with
George Clinton and a lyrical directness that made his debut LP Blackwater (2001) a calling-card
among roots-rock aficionados. Soon, he was expanding his tours beyond America and the U.K.,
playing ever-larger clubs and eventually massive festivals, as his fan base grew from a modest group
of loyal initiates into something resembling a national coalition.
Grey takes no shortcuts on the homestead, and he certainly takes no shortcuts in his music. While he
has metaphorically speaking “drawn blood” making all his albums, his latest effort, Ol’ Glory, found him
spending more time than ever working over the new material. A hip-shooting, off-the-cuff performer
(often his first vocal takes end up pleasing him best), Grey was able to stretch his legs a bit while
constructing the lyrics and vocal lines to Ol’ Glory.
“I would visit it much more often in my mind, visit it more often on the guitar in my house,” Grey says.
“I like an album to have a balance, like a novel or like a film. A triumph, a dark brooding moment, or a
moment of peace—that's the only thing I consistently try to achieve with a record.”
Grey has been living this balance throughout his career, and Ol’ Glory is a beautifully paced little film.
On “The Island,” Grey sounds like Coleridge on a happy day: “All beneath the canopy / of ageless
oaks whose secrets keep / Forever in her beauty / This island is my home.” “A Night to Remember”
finds the singer in first-rate swagger: “I flipped up my collar ah man / I went ahead and put on my best
James Dean / and you'd a thought I was Clark Gable squinting through that smoke.” And “Turn Loose”
has Grey in fast-rhyme mode in keeping with the song's title: “You work a stride / curbside thumbing a
ride / on Lane Avenue / While your kids be on their knees / praying Jesus please.” From the profane to
the sacred, the sly to the sublime, Grey feels out his range as a songwriter with ever-greater
assurance.
The mood and drive of Ol’ Glory are testament to this achievement. The album ranks with Grey’s very
best work; among other things, the secret spirituality of his music is perhaps more accessible here
than ever before. On “Everything Is a Song,” he sings of “the joy with no opposite,” a sacred state that
Grey describes to me:
“It can happen to anybody: you sit still and you feel things tingling around you, everything's alive
around you, and in that a smile comes on your face involuntarily, and in that I felt no opposite. It has
no part of the play of good and bad or of comedy or tragedy. I know it’s just a play on words but it feels
like more than just being happy because you got what you wanted — this is a joy. A joy that doesn’t
get involved one way or the next; it just is.”
Grey's most treasured albums include Otis Redding's In Person at the Whisky a Go Go and Jerry
Reed's greatest hits, and the singer once told me that he grew up “wanting to be Jerry Reed but with
less of a country, more of a soul thing.” With Ol’ Glory, Grey does his idols proud. It's a country record
where the stories are all part of one great mystery; it's a blues record with one foot in the church; it's a
Memphis soul record that takes place in the country.
In short, Ol’ Glory is that most singular thing, a record by JJ Grey—the north Florida sage and soulbent
swamp rocker.

Oli Brown

So here he is. The great white hope of British guitar. The young man blues sensation. The rock ‘n’ roll alchemist who fires a bullet-belt of influences into the mix. The heart-on-sleeve songwriter who bleeds onto the lyric sheet and solos like his soul is hard-wired to his fingers. The mover, shaker and rule-breaker, who drags the dusty conventions of the blues into the millennium by the hair.

But if you thought you knew the real Oli Brown, you don’t know the half of it. Please allow him to introduce himself. Three albums into his career, Here I Am finds Oli letting down the barriers, showing his cards, turning the spotlight on himself and defying you to turn off your stereo. “The new album is called Here I Am,” he explains, “because I’m saying, ‘this is me’. People know when something isn’t believable. I’m just trying to be honest.”

Here I Am is the sound of an artist on the crest of a wave. When Oli hit the studio in Nottingham after a triumphant 2011, he had the plaudits of fans, press, peers and heroes ringing in his ears, a truck-load of trophies and a huge weight of expectation. Most 22-year-olds would have felt pressure, but with his dream team around him – drummer/producer Wayne Proctor and bassist Scott Barnes – Oli rode the red light and chased down 12 classic songs to hand over to Magic Garden Mastering’s Brian Lacey (fresh from The Black Keys’ El Camino album).

It’s a tracklisting that runs the gauntlet, from Thinking About Her’s grooving ode to a seductress, past the desolate break-up blues of All We Had To Give, to the stinger missile Solid Ground that features Paul Jones on harmonica and signs off the album with a slam-dunk. “Ain’t tryin’ to be no Jimi or Stevie, I wanna be my goddamn self,” Oli roars on the title track, and even on covers of Donny Hathaway’s I Love You More Than You’ll Ever Know and Nikka Costa’s Like A Feather, he has both hands on the wheel. Oli Brown has stepped it up. Again.

It’s a long climb from the schoolyards of Norwich to the top table of the British blues scene, and hard to believe that Oli Brown has scaled it in just four years. “I didn’t have any career ambitions until I started playing guitar in 2002,” he notes. “Blues was always in the background, but what really hit was the first Stevie Ray Vaughan album I bought. When I started playing, Hendrix was my first influence. He was a showman, too, setting his guitar alight. I’ve never done that!”

With his chops primed, Oli soon went public, playing impromptu Norwich jam nights where “we didn’t even know what we were playing, but it taught me a lot”. The pivotal moment came at 15, when he was invited to the US as the guest of Blinddog Smokin’: a support slot that morphed into a mentoring scheme, with Oli sharing bills with Buddy Guy and Taj Mahal, and being schooled after-hours by his hosts. “Before that, I didn’t care what the music was, I just wanted to solo,” he admits. “But while I was out there, they taught me everything about the blues, about stagecraft, about walking tall and speaking to the audience.”

Oli would return to the US with Blinddog Smokin’ several times, while he also cites the wisdom imparted by legends including Robben Ford, John Mayall and Walter Trout. Fast-forward to 2008, though, and the student had become the master, and when Ruf Records label boss Thomas Ruf witnessed an explosive UK gig he signed Oli on the spot. Things moved fast. That same year, the precocious bandleader burst out of the blocks with Open Road: a dazzling opening shot that fused funky cuts like Psycho with heart-rending solo showcases like Missing You. “There aren’t many 12-bars on there,” Oli said in 2008. “I try to get across a few different styles, but I haven’t had any purists shout at me yet!”

So it began. With that first release, the press woke up to what live blues fanatics knew already, and promptly showered Oli with champagne, with Blues Matters! voting Open Road the #2 album of 2008, and Classic Rock declaring the singer had “the blues under his fingernails like few of his peers”. The flattery stepped up a gear when the Oli Brown Band became the only British act selected for 2008’s International Blues Convention in Memphis, and some measure of his exploding profile came when Oli was invited by John Fry of Ardent Studios to record a live session… which scored 1.3 million hits in under a month.

The buzz was building, and by 2010, it caught the ear of legendary British producer Mike Vernon, the veteran of such benchmarks as 1966’s Blues Breakers With Eric Clapton, who was lured out of semi-retirement to helm second album, Heads I Win Tails You Lose, and capture a light-footed tracklisting that mixed up scuttle-buttin’ grooves like Evil Soul and room-shakers like Real Good Time. On release in April 2010, it was clear this kid was more than alright, and the press duly threw star ratings like confetti, with Mojo dubbing Oli “the hottest young pistol in British blues”, Uncut praising “a British bluesman to rival Trucks and Bonamassa”, and Classic Rock voting Heads I Win #3 blues album of the year.

With the 2010 British Blues Awards toasting him as Best Male Vocalist and Best Young Artist, some musicians would have rested on their laurels and watched the royalties roll in. Not Oli Brown. He once said that “blues needs to be heard live”, and it’s true that while he tears it up in the studio, his natural habitat is the darkened stage and his favourite sound the roar of the crowd as he blasts songs skyward with his signature Vanquish guitar. In 2011, Oli toured the UK, Europe, New Zealand, Canada and America – even charming Uncle Sam with a high-profile breakfast TV appearance – and scored another haul of trophies at the British Blues Awards (Best Band and Best Album). The year concluded in schoolboy fantasy-style, playing 25 gigs with John Mayall. Somebody pinch him…

So where do you go when you’ve hit the top? The answer, for Oli Brown, is back on the road, as he supports the April release of Here I Am with a major UK headline tour. For this 22-year-old, blues isn’t just a job, an easy pay-cheque or a shot at cheap celebrity: it’s his passion, driving force and raison-d’être. “I picked the wrong genre of music to be a celebrity,” Oli laughs. “I just wanted to be a credible musician and get respect from people.” With Here I Am, it’s mission accomplished.

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