J.J. Grey and Mofro – Brighter Days (2011)

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Mofro’s humid grooves, chicken-fried rhythms and finger-licking riffs might lure you to the table, but it’s JJ Grey’s rib-sticking, story-building lyrics that fill you up. This concert CD adds crackling new life to both elements of their new-classic back-porch soul, underscoring the idea that this is perhaps the best Southern band working.

Grey, a native of the swampy north Florida region, clearly spends a lot of time crafting these detailed, blues-soaked ruminations — and nearly just as much time on the road. Mofro tours for as many as eight months a year, a nearly never-ending trek that landed the band in Atlanta, Georgia at the Variety House on Jan. 22, 2011, where Brighter Days, a 78-minute CD and 2-hour DVD from Alligator Records, was recorded.

If anything, Grey’s gravel-road vocals are even more deeply rutted in this live setting, and his band (Andrew Trube on lap steel and electric guitar, Anthony Farrell on organ and piano, Art Edmaiston on saxophone, Dennis Marion on trumpet, Todd Smallie on bass and Anthony Cole on drums) is a scalding delight. Together, they give voice to great American elegies, confront difficult new truths, extol backwoods values — all with a preacher-like conviction and a jukey R&B force.

There are hard times, and even harder lessons — as on “Dirtfloorcracker” and “Country Ghetto,” where a youngster is taught about the hard-scrabble, but proudly independent life of the working Southern poor: “Little boy, you ain’t never take a dime from the man … Starve to death, before you live by a government handout.”

But it’s not all bad.

While there’s a deep understanding of the outside forces that have done so much to change the region, there is also a lingering pride in the still-standing traditions — something outlined in “Brighter Days”: “But I belong in the South. That was where I was born a po’ boy, livin’ life like there’s no end in sight.” As the sun slides down below the horizon of another work week, Mofro also celebrates the troublemaking (“Orange Blossoms”), good eats (“Ho Cake”) and a romantic intertwinings that follow (“Slow, Hot & Sweaty,” with its appropriately moaning horn section). In the end, as underlined in the rollicking “Lochloosa,” this place is home — “a place where you can leave the bullshit behind for a few minutes.”

That the same can be said for Brighter Days, this heady combination of Al Green and Lynyrd Skynyrd — two branches, after all, of the same gnarled, Southern-rooted tree — is perhaps the highest compliment of all.

Nick DeRiso

Nick DeRiso

Nick DeRiso has written for USA Today, American Songwriter, All About Jazz, and a host of others. Honored as columnist of the year five times by the Associated Press, Louisiana Press Association and Louisiana Sports Writers Association, he oversaw a daily section named Top 10 in the U.S. by the AP before co-founding Something Else! Nick is now associate editor of Ultimate Classic Rock.
Nick DeRiso
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