JJ Grey & Mofro

JJ Grey & Mofro

"Impassioned singing, riff-based Southern rock, cold-blooded swamp funk and sly Memphis soul." --The New York Times

Over the course of six albums and a decade of touring, JJ Grey's grimy blend of front porch soul and down-home storytelling has taken him around the world and back again. Beating the streets on nearly every continent, he and his band Mofro have sewn a continuous thread of laying-it-on-the-line shows that move folks to dance and at times to tears.

JJ was raised in North Florida by a typically Southern extended family that valued hard work and self-reliance. This upbringing permeates his no nonsense approach to writing and performing and has given him an abundance of material to write about in his songs.

"A friend of mine once said that we're all characters if we're given enough room to be one. I guess I was lucky enough to be surrounded by people who had plenty of room cause Lord knows I know some larger-than-life ones. I've had a lot of laughs and good times with those characters. We've shared some hard times too."

These characters and JJ's own triumphs and struggles, make regular appearances throughout his lyrics. "Looking at his show now, it's remarkable to think how far he's come, and to realize the creative spirit and force of will it's taken to get there," says longtime producer and friend Dan Prothero. "But it's also remarkable to see him up there singing about the worst of it, and smiling a smile that has come from accepting the good with the bad. In recent years I think he's come to realize that the fighting stance that seemed to get him where he needed to go back then wasn't getting him where he needed to go now, and so he changed. Letting go and letting it all happen is at the heart of his creative process now."

"The best songs I've ever wrote, I never wrote. They wrote themselves. The best show I ever played, played itself and had little to do with me or talent. To me those things come from the power of an honest moment and I guess I'm trying to live in that power and not force life to cough up what I want. That power is always there whether I'm aware of it or not. Force is the opposite. It requires effort and comes at a great cost. The cost has always been my freedom to truly enjoy what I'm doing while I'm doing it."

April 2013 brings the release of JJ's sixth studio album, This River. Named for the St. John's River -- a centering point for his childhood near Jacksonville, Florida -- This River flows from freewheeling celebrations ("Florabama") to dark inner journeys ("Somebody Else"), from late night, beer-soaked testimonials ("Your Lady") to heartfelt ballads of the almost-forgotten ("The Ballad Of Larry Webb"), and ends with the title track and a singularly devastating vocal performance. With Dan Prothero at the helm as producer, JJ and the band once again returned to Retrophonics Studio in nearby St. Augustine, Florida and muscled out some of JJ's strongest material to date.

"We set up much like we do for our shows, and cut the tracks as close to live as possible," says Grey, "there's something about everybody getting into one room and playing together. It brings some spark that can sometimes get lost in the shuffle of too much overdubbing."

JJ's band Mofro has also been a decade in the making. Over that time, great players have come and gone, but according to JJ, the present incarnation -- with Art Edmaiston on saxophone, Dennis Marion on Trumpet, Anthony Farrell on organ and piano, Todd Smallie on Bass, Anthony Cole on drums and Andrew Trube on guitar – is "the creme de la crème."

"These musicians I get to play with make it look easy. I've learned so much from them about music and about life in general. It ain't always easy to keep a core together when you do so many shows a year, year after year, but I truly hope to keep these guys together as long as possible."

Many of Grey's songs reflect his love for the North Florida wilderness in which he grew up. Having watched his native home be decimated by egregious development, and this has often figured heavily into his lyrics. He now works with groups such as The Snook & Gamefish Foundation and the St. Johns Riverkeepers, but still doesn't consider himself an environmentalist.

"I guess I've never really believed that there is an environment that's separate from me. I reckon that my connection to the environment, which I could call my home, is part of the connection to myself. I believe that whatever I do to my home and everything in it, I in-turn do to myself."

From his early days playing cover music behind chicken wire at a Westside (Jacksonville) juke joint to playing sold-out shows and some of the largest music festivals in the world, it's been a long road. But JJ has no illusions about where he's headed or where he's been. When prompted with questions about his past accomplishments or future plans, JJ lays down a little backwoods wisdom:

"I'm just a salmon swimming up stream. Going back home I reckon. I don't know why and I quit caring why a long time ago. I guess there is no 'why' that my mind could understand anyway. All I do know is that I've enjoyed and I'm still enjoying every second of just being here and doing whatever it is I'm doing."

JJ Grey is from Jacksonville, Florida. He made his recording debut in 2001 with Blackwater, following up in 2004 with Lochloosa (both albums reissued by Alligator). In 2007 Grey released his Alligator debut, Country Ghetto, followed by 2008's Orange Blossoms. With the release of 2010's Georgia Warhorse, Grey stepped further into the mainstream view with the AAA radio breakout single The Sweetest Thing. In 2011 the full fury of the bands live show was captured on the live CD/DVD Brighter Days.

JJ has played countless festivals, including Lollapalooza, Bonnaroo, Wakarusa, Austin City Limits Festival, Byron Bay Blues Festival (Australia), Montreal Jazz Festival and Fuji Rock (Japan). Over the course of his career, Grey has shared stages with the likes of Lenny Kravitz, B.B. King, The Allman Brothers Band, The Black Crowes, Los Lobos, Jeff Beck, Ben Harper, Booker T. Jones, Mavis Staples and many others. In 2011 the band extensively toured the UK. That same year, back in the USA Grey embarked on his first-ever solo tour, playing packed-to-capacity clubs. The band returned to Europe in 2012, playing multiple dates in the UK, Germany and The Netherlands. Grey and his band, who continue to play over 125 shows a year, will return to Europe in 2013.

JJ's songs have appeared in film and network television including House, Flashpoint, Crash, Friday Night Lights, The Glades, The Deadliest Catch and the film The Hoot. In November 2009, JJ wrote his first film score for the critically acclaimed, Emmy Award-winning documentary The Good Soldier that appeared in theatres and on Bill Moyers' Journal on PBS. In 2010, JJ played piano, sang and contributed a song ("The Wrong Side") to Buckwheat Zydeco's Grammy-winning Alligator Records album Lay Your Burden Down. JJ also appears on Shemekia Copelands' Grammy-nominated 2012 CD 33 1/3.

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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JJ Grey & Mofro with Oli Brown

Friday, December 27 · Doors 7:00 PM / Show 8:00 PM at Music Farm Charleston