JJ Grey (center) started out trying to emulate Otis Redding but "it just ain't 1968," he said. On, "Ol' Glory" (Provogue, 2015), the new release from JJ Gray and Mofro, the blues funkster is no one but himself.
Blues-funkster JJ Grey spent years trying to be someone else before embracing the guy in the mirror.
"I always wanted to be Otis Redding," Grey said. "It just ain't 1968"
So the Jacksonville, Fla., native dug into his roots and emerged with a Southern soul sound that has grown from regional delicacy to global treat. After years with noted American blues label Alligator Records, JJ Grey and Mofro jumped to Belgian label Provogue for the band's seventh album, Ol' Glory (Feb. 2015).
Grey and Mofro will swing through Boise for the America On Tap Harvest Festival on Saturday, Sept. 19 at Barber Park, bringing both new material off Ol' Glory and the band's brand of blues.
"Years ago, I figured out that you can catch people by surprise [imitating someone else], and they go 'Wow, what the hell,' and then move along, because it's just a veneer. You have to get into what's real," Grey said. "When I started doing that, the music started moving all over the place. All the rules I had written, once I dropped all that shit, it started to get real, and then it really got interesting."
The band started simply as "Mofro" in the late-'90s, making its recorded debut with Blackwater (Fog City Records, 2001). The tour ended horribly when Mofro's van was hit from behind by an uninsured driver. Band members were hospitalized and saddled with more than $100,000 in hospital bills, which was part of the reason it took three years to follow Blackwater with Lochloosa (Fog City Records, 2004).
Following Mofro's sophomore release, Grey's name moved to the front, and the band migrated to Alligator Records. The label helped push Grey and Mofro out of jam band status—which, while supportive and undeniably lucrative, carries some critical stigma for its noodly, unending vamps.
"What's funny is we're on Fog City [home to jam band heavyweights Galactic] for a couple years, and the jam band word got spread around and then the day we got signed to Alligator, the first set of interviews I did, we were called a blues band," Grey said.
The music has evolved over the years, though Grey and Mofro remain rooted in a blend of gospel, soul, Southern and '70s rock—not unlike Marietta, Ga.-based Black Crowes. The Crowes connection runs deeper than sound: Black Crowes guitarist Luther Dickinson—who plays with Grey, Marc Broussard and Anders Osborne in Southern Soul Assembly—plays on Ol' Glory, as does Grey's hometown buddy Derek Trucks (The Derek Trucks Band). The collaboration epitomizes the loose, familial vibe of the album.
Thematically, Ol' Glory is full of reverence and humility. The track "Every Minute" opens with Grey singing, "I tried so hard to be the person/ everybody thought I was/ I pushed myself and everyone/ almost over the edge."
On the horn-laden, Motown-flavored "Light a Candle," he admits to playing the victim and how it "made me feel stronger just to say I'm weak."
Grey has trod confessional ground before on songs like "The Sun is Shining Down" and "The Sweetest Thing." With Ol' Glory, however, he found new depth.
"A lot of those songs I wrote early like 'The Sun is Shining Down,' then I had no idea what they were about in a way," Grey said. "When I look at them now, I think of them as Post-It notes being written by some part of me trying to wake the other part of me up. Now I've woken up and they're kind of working together ... kind of shakily handing a baton off to each other."
The parts of himself coming together also helped Grey realize how little he had been living in the present.
"I was never where I was, I was always where I thought we were going," he said. "I could be on the road daydreaming perpetually about being home with my family and going to my favorite restaurant and the beach, and then I would come home and all I could think about was what I had to do next to get the next tour ready. I wasn't ever where I was, even for a minute."
Though he recognizes the value of not taking anything for granted, Grey also underlined the importance of understanding how we're all connected to one another.
"It's a movie you're making up as you go along. You're the director, writer and producer, and everyone's doing the same thing you're doing," Grey said. "To me that's the definition of infinity."