JJ GREY & MOFRO at FILLMORE AUDITORIUM | 2/21/14 This show at the Fillmore offered a full night of funk in various forms, from the cowfunk stomp of Nicki Bluhm and the Gramblers to the slick and polished Motown meets Shel Silverstein funk of Keller Williams, culminating with JJ Grey and Mofro's downright spiritual everglades sound. Coming from different regions and influences, the varied styles of a similar genre made for a nonstop entertaining show that brought older blues loving guys, lots of pretty ladies, and the occasional dreadlocked twirling folk together for the sake of experiencing music that cuts to the soul.
When entering the photo pit, photographers were told, "These guys really like to jam, so we are just going to give you the first twenty minutes, instead of the typical first three songs, who knows how long three songs might last." Those words proved to be prophetic, as JJ Grey & Mofro proceeded to wow the crowd with a night of extended funky blues jams and gospel preaching about home and love from the main man himself.
As the band hit the stage decorated with five small lamps on varying heights of tables, you could see huge smiles on everyone's faces; this is a band that just wants to play. The title track from the 2010 album The Sweetest Thing showed Andrew Trube's skills off. The guitarist's passionate leg kick told you he was feeling it. Things were taken down a notch by drummer AC Cole as the outfit went through "Air." Grey sounded like a growling, raspy lounge singer as he strolled the stage with a spotlight centered on him before attention was steered to saxophonist Art Edmaiston as he let loose a blaring sax solo.
On "Tame a Wild One," a newer track from 2013's This River, Grey really belted as the high tempo song continued to grow with each measure in force and magnitude. Sounding like a Stax Records act, the band took things down a notch to let Grey really show off his front porch soulful vocals. The chunky southern rock sounds of "99 Shades of Crazy" brought the energy level back up, before the band launched into its most popular song "Brighter Days." As JJ preached his message, he talked about how crazy the notion that "a leopard can't change his spots" is, saying "a person can't change? Ain't that some bullshit?"
Grey's voice has such conviction that anything he says sounds wise and true, and this was especially evident on tunes like "Ho Cake," in which he basically just listed delicious Southern foods while the audience screamed in rapture. That's talent when you can Bubba Gump your way through a song and make everyone feel like you should have a Grammy for it.
"Slow, Hot and Sweaty" had a killer trumpet solo by Dennis Marion, as Anthony Farrell took the place to church with his organ, building a nice big crescendo and cacophony of noise to the end of the set. For the encore, the outfit pulled out a newer track that started sweet as a lullaby. Throughout the show, the spotlight from the balcony was really being used to good effect. It gave Grey an almost TV evangelist-like feel -- that is if TV evangelists were cool as hell and rocked white pants.
Keller Williams is kind of dangerous to have as your opening act, especially when he brings his backing funk band, More Than a Little. Between his very literate and animated performance style, which comes off like a Deadhead Jack Black, and the two powerhouse back up vocalists he had in tow, Williams a hard act to follow. Looking classy and dapper in a dark grey suit, Williams rarely stopped the music as he and his funk players segued seamlessly between covers and originals and back again. Backup vocalists Sugar Davis and Tonya Jackson really shone in Lauryn Hill's "Doo Wop (That Thing)," which moved into a really bubbly funk jam.
Williams's warm storyteller voice blended nicely with the big belting backup voices when covering Talking Heads' "Once in a Lifetime," and the audience added their own voices to the mix for the final refrains of the chorus. Taking things down to just the sexy funky bass lines of EJ Shaw, Williams employed the electronic drum pad before launching into crowd favorite "Freaker by the Speaker."
"Cadillac," meanwhile, showed off the Paul Simon side of Williams's traveling storyteller articulation, while Rick James's "Mary Jane" brought a funky groove that felt very fitting for the time and place. Nicki and Tim Bluhm joined Williams and company on stage for Tom Petty's "You Don't Know How It Feels," followed by an appearance by JJ Grey himself, who added harmonica on "Mountain Times." The line "This funk is my meal" really underscored the notion that Williams is a man who needs to be performing to survive.
Coming out of San Francisco, Nicki Bluhm and the Gramblers, who got things going earlier in the evening, have a sound that is reminiscent of the country funk of the Grateful Dead: chunky chugging chords mixed with bright melodies and nice bouts of organ funk courtesy of husband Tim Bluhm (also of the Mother Hips). Long and lean like a snake in tight Wranglers and a suede fringed vest, Nicki had a commanding and compelling on stage presence, slowly swaggering around the stage when the band dropped into lengthy instrumental jams.
When it was time for her vocals, Nicki continuously showed herself to be a very capable R&B soul singer, hitting big notes without the over the top bravado of some radio pop stars. The highlight of the set was "Jetplane" off 2011's Driftwood. As the tempo kicked into gear her vocals just continued to reach and reach higher, and not a note was out of key.
Personal Bias: Before this show, I'd only seen Keller Williams once sixteen years ago (opening for SCI in Austin at Liberty Lunch in '98) doing his one man band looping thing. I thought he was incredible, but somehow, I never saw him again. I was not expecting the funk band Friday, and once again, he floored me. I won't be missing any other shows. Random Detail: This was the first show since Justin Bieber where I saw quite a few people wearing the T-shirt they just bought from the merch stand. I like when people aren't too cool for school. By the Way: I couldn't help noticing that JJ Grey sounds and looks like a Florida beach-country version of Macklemore -- or should I say, Macklemore looks and sounds like a thrift-store-shopping Seattle version of JJ.
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