JJ Grey and Mofro: Southern rock at the 9:30 Club
WASHINGTON, March 19, 2015 – The recent JJ Grey and Mofro show at the 9:30 Club might not have been sold out. But at various times during their set, it certainly had the appearance of a sold-out show. People were swirling and chanting along with JJ Grey’s voice. They weren’t really dancing in a traditional sense, but instead just moving en masse in their given space trying to feel the music.
Being immersed in this kind of crowd gives you an overwhelming feeling. When this is complimented with a sound that’s both methodical and relatively soothing, it has a tendency to make the entire venue seem full in a way that a band playing quick bursts and an audience reacting in kind just can’t accomplish.
This Jacksonville group has been operating in some fashion or another since the late 1990s, originally billing themselves as “Mofro.” Their specific brand of southern rock suggests that JJ Grey and his band members will continue playing this kind of music years after the fact.
This likelihood isn’t due just to the turnovers from the original band – which become increasingly likely when a band begins to identify with single member like Grey. And it’s not that there’s something inherently timeless folded within the band’s sound. Instead, it’s due more to the populist attitude that’s now reflected in this band’s output.
It’s easy to make the argument that JJ Grey and Mofro haven’t really been an immensely popular band over the course of their collective career, at least in the sense of pop music popularity. Their brand of southern rock hasn’t really caught pop music listeners’ attention since the mid ‘70s or so, which is where their influences most likely start in earnest.
At the same time though, their sound continues to build in distinctiveness over time. While not necessarily popular with general American audiences at first, their music attracts the type of fans who stick with the bands they like, which is the way to build a fan base that rarely fades.
To a certain extent, this is how a band like JJ Grey and Mofro can sneak up on a listener or anyone in the audience who hasn’t heard them before. Nothing about their sound is overstated.
The main thrust of their guitar playing is almost lackadaisical, never feeling rushed. The horns and rhythm section are paced just below mid-tempo, matching perfectly with JJ Grey’s vocals, which have a soulful and almost soft reverb to them. Nothing feels forced as they twist each of their songs further during the set’s progression. It’s easy to get lost in their sound because they’ve done this hundreds of times before at this point, and that kind of repetition and practice serves to polish and enhance their live show.
On balance, aside from a more polished, Southern-style sound, not much about JJ Grey and Mofro has changed over their nearly two decades in existence. At this point, that’s part of their appeal. The kind of show they put on at the 9:30 Club is more than likely similar to the show they put on the last time they launched into a tour.
Likewise, it will probably be hard to distinguish their recent show here from some future set down the road, although the precise lineup of songs may change a bit. This might seem a little boring to some people. But in this case, what it means from a performance standpoint is a greater sense of precision and refinement in the sound and professionalism of the band.
This isn’t to say that the band hasn’t progressed at all, or isn’t willing to try new things, because that would be patently false. But what it does mean is that they seem to have found something of a sweet spot after all these years.
The way they have chosen to move forward is by building off that sound they’ve been steadily refining. They’ll keep contributing more to their discography, but will likely do this primarily to keep themselves interested. While their fan base people will look forward to future new recordings, this won’t substantially alter the substance of their live performances.
In short, people come to a JJ Grey and Mofro show because the band has built its own kind of brand and their fans like what they see and hear. They will cite certain songs as favorites. But at the end of the night, even if they don’t hear those songs, the night won’t be a waste for them.
That’s because the band has effectively sold themselves by promoting a certain aesthetic, one that will allow them to exist for as long as they want, orbiting in their own little universe.
For their fans, it doesn’t matter what they play, because any song they play will sound like JJ Grey and Mofro. The way they fulfill expectations is what gets their audience excited, and that audience will continue to grow as long as this band is still willing to perform.