Music Reviews Mofro

(Above[L-R]: Mofro’s Daryl Hance and J.J. Grey)

Perhaps the red, white and blue spotlights at St. Louis’s Pageant should’ve served as trickster clues. Or the snide remark of a toasted, aging frat boy nearby, about three songs in: “These are f—in’ country-ass rednecks here!” And few danced.

There, inland from the mighty Mississippi, Southern-fried roots-funk quartet Mofro were definitely beyond the heart of Dixie. Instead, for all their homespun charm, sonic skill and road hardiness (they’d hightailed it from a Knoxville gig, arriving for “the first time on time” in St. Louiee, according to front man J. J. Grey), Mofro’s performance was tainted by the ugly resurgence of class divisions thrown into stark relief by this land’s cold climate and return of casting po’ white Southerners as bogeymen. Sure, the band—Daryl Hance (guitar), George Sluppick (drums), Adam Scone (organ, bass) and Grey—are touring musicians of some acclaim, but if they’ve hit the Forbes list it’s on the downlow. And this crowd, despite the smattering of Jam Nation diehards and local fans, came off unreceptive to Grey’s railing against “another country club, another gated community…” on the title track of Mofro’s latest, Lochloosa (i.e. ‘swampland’).

This disrespect seemed to affect the band with a form of inertia, as they kicked off their set without warmth, sounding more “modern rock” than at any of the prior Mofro shows I’ve witnessed. Indeed, the arrangements on several earlier classics (like “Air”) seemed to have been tweaked, as if the band’s patented “porchy” sound is in transition and the way forward is reconstructed nightly. This inchoate disconnect empowered the crowd chatter yet also enabled close observation of the aftereffects of Mofro’s lineup change, and of viewing triple-threat (singer, composer, multi-instrumentalist) Grey—with his leonine cloud and Western shirt-and-flares uniform—as an emerging John Fogerty in reverse. Truly, what may be missing from Mofro’s bid to move on up is a scathing anti-war song on order of Fogerty’s great “Fortunate Son.” Well, the instability in Iraq continues and the Florida-born Grey is, unlike Fogerty, literally of his own private swamp paradise and thus the perfect bard of blue-collar sentiment who needn’t deploy his arsenal of Little Feat-isms and “Dirtfloorcracka” slang merely for the sake of Romance.

Second song “Six Ways From Sunday” unfettered the groove slightly and by the time the band got to “Blackwater” with its organ-drenched jam and piano call-and-response, the testifying soul provider in Grey reasserted itself. Certain sections along the middle passage including “How Junior Got His Head Put Out” (so hot it made me cry, “Where’s Fiddler?!”), the Victorian murder epic “Ten Thousand Islands” and Southland pastoral ode “Florida” were marred by organist Scone’s over-reliance on using the higher register for emphasis in similar patterns. Still, the funk had come roaring back enough to loosen the wee bootys of my stepdaughters so enthralled by Uncle Disney. An explosive antiwar tune not prefaced by title even invoked an apocalyptic, chicken-scratch summit between Black Merda and the Chambers Brothers.

In whatever configuration, Mofro remains genuinely knee-deep in roots and honesty, piloted as they are by Grey’s formidable musicianship and polemical storytelling. As he easily switched between guitar, harmonica, electric piano, and jumping up to soul shout, the gaggle of revelers before the stage marveled at the vibe harkening back to a vanishing era and Grey’s exhortations to “take [you] higher!” even as he palpably suffered on “Florida,” the concrete encroaching on his homeland “like watching someone [you] love die slowly.” Closing with encore “Lochloosa” underscored this personal-as-political stance and heartening sensitivity so rare in pop. Time has come today to disturb the widening Great Divide with Mofro’s soulful civil disobedience

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