Thursday’s show at Knuckleheads was evidence of at least two truths: People of all ages still like to go out and dance all night, and there’s still an appetite out there for the blues.
JJ Grey and Mofro, the evening’s headliner, isn’t a straight-up blues band. They mix their blues with Southern, horn-fed soul, Southern rock and heavy dollops of funk and rhythm and blues.
Grey is the lead vocalist and ringmaster of the seven-piece band from Jacksonville, Fla., which drew more than 500 fans to the cozy joint by the railroad tracks. Blustery weather caused the show to be moved indoors, which made things even cozier, especially for those who wanted a spot in front of the stage. The close quarters didn’t inhibit lots of people from dancing throughout the night, though.
Grey writes songs about his Southern heritage, filling them with images and details of his lifestyle and youth, like his grandmother’s cooking in “Ho Cake”: “I love that ox-tail soup with a little rice / I love them candied yams and sweet potato pies”; or the swamplands around “Lochloosa,” a song protesting development and professing love for Lochloosa Lake and its environment: “every mosquito, every rattlesnake, every canebrake — everything.”
Grey sings in a voice filled with grit and soul. Much of the time he sounds like Chris Robinson of the Black Crowes; other times he approximates Otis Redding or Arthur Alexander (though he never quite getsthere).
When he talks to his audience, which he does frequently, he has the delivery and cadence of a Southern preacher.
Grey sang lead vocals, played keyboards, blues harp and tambourine. Behind him, his band delivered plenty of old-school groove on organ, lap steel, electric guitar and bass. His songs are well-crafted, melodic and groovy.
His is a jam band, at least its members frequent that world, but they keep most of their instrumentals and improvisations short and to a minimum. Even the breaks by his Hercules Horns — Dennis Marion on trumpet and Art Edmaiston on tenor sax — were flashy but relatively brief.
The crowd, a mix of folks in their early 20s to couples in their 60s, was engaged for most of the 100-minute set, even during the more mellow moments like the gritty soul hymn, “Air.” The grimy, bluesy “Country Ghetto” ignited the first big outburst. Other crowd favorites: “Sweetest Thing,” a balmy gust of honeyed, country soul; “Lochloosa”; and “Orange Blossoms,” an irresistible blend of brassy, old-school funk and soul that started the loudest sing-along of the night.
They ended with a flourish: “Brighter Days,” a down-and-out soul anthem with a redemptive vibe; then the infernal and carnal “On Fire,” a five-alarm electric blues/funk number about lust at first sight.
The crowd in front of the stage was on fire, too, including one woman who hopped on stage to find more room to dance. That can happen when a well-oiled band breaks music down to its primal elements.