JJ Grey is 44 years old and, in my opinion, just hitting his stride. I find comfort in that, and not just because I’m the same age. He’s forged a trail all his own, and has finally begun to get some recognition for his hard work. Of course, when you release enough “fixed art” to have what could be considered “a body of work,” a certain level of estimation is in order, and he’s overseen the release of 5 studio albums in 10 years. One major milestone – his signing to stalwart blues label Alligator Records several albums ago – may have been the best thing that ever happened to him (from a promotional standpoint), but it may have branded him as a blues artist. JJ Grey is anything but. Call it sweet, swampy, southern-fried soul, but don’t call JJ Grey’s work “The Blues.”
His set as a headliner for Santa Fe Winter Fiesta was jubilant, even when he took back roads into what passes for politicism is his world: the bemoaning of the loss of rural life and a sort of neo-hippyish eco-love. He seems to have settled into his role as bandleader for Mofro quite well. They may not be the same band they were when co-creator Daryl Hance was involved, nor have quite the 70s Stax kick they had with [now Chris Robinson Brotherhood drummer] George Sluppick behind the skins, but this lineup is solid and they allow JJ (“John-John” when he was growing up) to be what, perhaps, he was always meant to be – a frontman.
Opening the set with a barnburner from 2010’s Georgia Warhose – “Hide & Seek” – set the tone for the night: a gritty and heartfelt joyousness, coupled with an implied dare that the audience try NOT to boogie. It was a war everyone in attendance lost by the end of the set.
The aforementioned “body of work” came into play early on, and even I, jaded cynic that I am, found myself singing along rather loudly. All his albums would be visited before the night was over, which is a delight when compared to the set list from “Hot Band X,” which leans heavily – in some cases, almost exclusively – on new material.
By the time he slid into Brighter Days (one of his earliest compositions, and also one of the highlights of his new live CD/DVD), not even a third-of-the-way through the set, it occurred to me this was the make-or-break moment where he either had us or he lost us. Well, he had us. This could almost be archetypal arena rock, but with JJ’s unique humanity, it bloomed like spring splendor in a miles-wide field of grass.
The set list made nice work of visiting just enough slow numbers to get a slow dance in (if you were with, or trying to get with, a lady), or to catch your breath from all the rump-shaking and maybe grab a brew. Let’s say the formula was well-paced.
The show-stopping “Georgia Warhorse” was an absolute monster: a 2-ton behemoth way more slinky and epic than the studio cut implied it could be, somehow both terrifying and beautiful in its magnitude, as though the titular insect itself had been irradiated by unwise scientists and grown as high as a skyscraper, its mandibles anxious to slice trains in half.
It also excused the more concise, radio-friendly numbers immediately following: “Everything Good Is Bad” and “Orange Blossoms,” both of which are fine as far as radio songs go, but they didn’t get the revelatory, expansive delivery that would’ve implied they could be anything but radio songs.
But by the time he steered the band into another early number, “Ho Cake,” JJ was telling stories that could have gone on forever while the band just laid down a solid backbeat. It was a lengthy, rhythmic paean to his grandmother’s southern cooking which left us salivating for more – more food, more drink, more love, more music, more dancing… just more – though he probably stretched it out as long as was humanly possible. (For anyone wondering where they can get a taste of the type of Florida flavor he arranged this song around, JJ admitted that “Chowder Ted’s is the greatest restaurant in the known universe” during a radio interview earlier in the day.)
He closed the set proper with “The Sweetest Thing” and it came out the perfect blend of happy and cool. It could’ve swelled the heart of the Grinchiest of Grinches and got their toes tapping at least a little.
The encore was a one-two punch to the soul and the boo-tay. First up: an epic rendition of “Lochloosa,” an ode to the wetlands he grew up loving, exploring, and enjoying. JJ Grey carried it with a swagger and just enough corniness to force me to smile and admit I was enjoying myself.
Second encore was prefaced by a great story about driving the city streets with his dad while he was still quite young. JJ said he was barely able to see over the dashboard, if that gives you a rough estimate of his age. A well-endowed woman strutted through the crosswalk confidently and JJ caught his dad saying, “Damn, she got an ass as thick as an army mule’s!” Well, that phrase was born again many years later as the basis for the super-funky “On Fire,” which the band brought hot and hard. It may have been during this number – but definitely one near the end – where JJ doubled on keys with Anthony Farrell, and it was smokin’. JJ also played some guitar and tambourine during the show, so he’s safe in having multi-instrumentalist on his résumé. But it’s his songwriting and his radiant heart that really steal the show. That, and he’s bouncy like Tigger. For the curious, I believe JJ said his dad’s lineage sprung from Trinidad, which is likely where some of his earthy lust for life and love comes from.
At the very least, he seems to be as authentic a human being as a performing musician can be, and believe me I rarely apply the adjective “genuine” in this business. To see that a genuine human being like JJ Grey can still make a name for himself in this world, well that’s just plain heartening.