JJ Grey & Mofro, The Vic Theatre, Chicago, IL- 10/25
Chicagoans looking to escape the too-cold-for-October city winds recently found refuge in the genuine Southern heat brought to town by JJ Grey & Mofro. Although the esteemed Grey and funky Mofro could have easily been plucked right from the front porch of the band’s birthplace in North Florida, the soulful Southerners seemed right at home as they rocked through a 16-song set on the worn and rustic Vic Theatre stage.
“You asked for it – you got it,” the announcer proclaims to a dimly lit stage full of mismatched lamps and a crowd already on its toes following the exit of quirky and energetic opener, The Revivalists (whom Grey would later dub one of the “baddest bands in the world.”) As Grey takes the stage – adorned in a dark maroon polo, crisp white pants and all-but genuine Alligator skin shoes – his face is full of excitement and gratitude. Although the seasoned artist has overseen the release of seven albums over the past decade, fans can see from the onset of the show that he is prepared to perform as if he’s got something to prove.
Straight out of the gate, the crowd is treated to an infectious bass line and the gritty realness of Mr. Grey’s voice with “Hide and Seek,” a foot-stomper from 2010’s Georgia Warhorse. Paired with Mofro’s eccentric horn section, the boisterous tune surrounds the crowd as if performed by a full church choir rather than a modest six-piece outfit. The horns not-so-silently steal the beginning of the next track – 2011’s “A Woman” – until Grey’s rough voice croons through the microphone and he extends his arm to the audience. In the crowd, a woman faints and a baby is conceived – at least that’s what we imagine based on the sultry riffs radiating from the stage.
Between the perfectly in-step moves of Art Edmaiston (saxophone) and Dennis Marion (trumpet) and Grey’s pelvic thrusts and so-excited-he-may-jump-out-of-his-skin two-stepping, the entire theatre can’t help but sway along as the boys play into the night. “Brighter Days” is an obvious favorite, both for the crowd, who shouts along with the chorus, and Grey, who can’t help but sing through the most genuinely grateful smile you’ve ever seen. “I knew before I left home that this would be good, but damn, I didn’t know you’d be this fired up!” he proclaims to the audience that’s eating out of the palm of his tan hand.
The show is heavy with new material from the swamp-rockers’ newest album, This River, named for the St. John’s River that flows near Grey’s childhood home in Jacksonville, Florida. “99 Shades of Crazy” – a punchy blues anthem that highlights Grey’s innate ability to bring storylines and characters to life through song – sends Grey bouncing around the stage like a bullfrog. The slower, but no less powerful, “Somebody Else” taps the rhythm and funk of a blues tune from another decade, while the heartfelt “Tame a Wild One” channels just the right amount of John Mellencamp.
Another new track, the funky and straightforward testimonial “Your Lady (She’s Shady),” brings Edmaiston and his saxophone to the front of the stage – a fitting place for the crowd-pleaser. Grey pretends to duke it out musically, but eventually steps aside, watching with astonishment as if this is the first time he’s heard Edmaiston play. “I’m the luckiest man alive to get to play with these people!” he shouts earnestly.
Grey breaks out the harmonica for older track “Lochloosa” from his second record of the same name, which summons Ed Williams of the Revivalists and his pedal steel guitar to the front. Again, Grey is eager to share the stage with another talented musician and almost seems enthralled as Williams gets to work. Grey works the tambourine for the clap- and sing-a-long “Orange Blossom,” and the sultry “Slow, Hot and Sweaty.” From Anthony Farrell on the organ to Marion and his trumpet, everyone gets a piece of the action during the steamy tune.
The Revivalists’ lanky lead, Dave Shaw, takes the stage to contribute his own particularly Blues-soaked vocals to “Everything Good is Bad,” which slowly escalates into a stage wide production. After a short exit from the stage – short because Grey was having too much fun and couldn’t stand to be away – Grey and the MoFros reenter, joined again by nearly half of the Revivalists. The group’s encore starts with the soulful title track from the band’s newest album before taking us way back to the band’s roots, with “Ho Cake,” a straight-out-of-the-South body-shaker from the band’s first album. As the band mash-up dances their way through the ode to all things fried and delicious, you momentarily mistake them for a family band with decades of chemistry.
We asked for it and we got it? Why yes, yes we did.