KNITTING FACTORY PRESENTS
JJ Grey & Mofro, Dragondeer
JJ GREY & MOFRO Ol’ Glory From the days of playing greasy local juke joints to headlining major festivals, JJ Grey remains an unfettered, blissful performer, singing with a blue-collared spirit over the bone-deep grooves of his compositions. His presence before an audience is something startling and immediate, at times a funk rave-up, other times a sort of mass-absolution for the mortal weaknesses that make him and his audience human. When you see JJ Grey and his band Mofro live—and you truly, absolutely must—the man is fearless.
Onstage, Grey delivers his songs with compassion and a relentless honesty, but perhaps not until Ol’ Glory has a studio record captured the fierceness and intimacy that defines a Grey live performance. “I wanted that crucial lived-in feel,” Grey says of Ol’ Glory, and here he hits his mark. On the new album, Grey and his current Mofro lineup offer grace and groove in equal measure, with an easygoing quality to the production that makes those beautiful muscular drum-breaks sound as though the band has set up in your living room.
Despite a redoubtable stage presence, Grey does get performance anxiety—specifically, when he's suspended 50 feet above the soil of his pecan grove, clearing moss from the upper trees.
“The tops of the trees are even worse,” he laughs, “say closer to 70, maybe even 80 feet. I'm not phobic about heights, but I don't think anyone's crazy about getting up in a bucket and swinging all around. I wanted to fertilize this year but didn't get a chance. This February I will, about two tons—to feed the trees.”
When he isn't touring, Grey exerts his prodigious energies on the family land, a former chicken-farm that was run by his maternal grandmother and grandfather. The farm boasts a recording studio, a warehouse that doubles as Grey's gym, an open-air barn, and of course those 50-odd pecan trees that occasionally require Grey to go airborne with his sprayer.
For devoted listeners, there is something fitting, even affirmative in Grey's commitment to the land of his north Florida home. The farms and eddying swamps of his youth are as much a part of Grey's music as the Louisiana swamp-blues tradition, or the singer's collection of old Stax records.
As a boy, Grey was drawn to country-rockers, including Jerry Reed, and to Otis Redding and the other luminaries of Memphis soul; Run-D.M.C., meanwhile, played on repeat in the parking lot of his high school (note the hip-hop inflections on “A Night to Remember”). Merging these traditions, and working with a blue-collar ethic that brooked no bullshit, Grey began touring as Mofro in the late '90s, with backbeats that crossed Steve Cropper with George Clinton and a lyrical directness that made his debut LP Blackwater (2001) a calling-card among roots-rock aficionados. Soon, he was expanding his tours beyond America and the U.K., playing ever-larger clubs and eventually massive festivals, as his fan base grew from a modest group of loyal initiates into something resembling a national coalition.
Grey takes no shortcuts on the homestead, and he certainly takes no shortcuts in his music. While he has metaphorically speaking “drawn blood” making all his albums, his latest effort, Ol’ Glory, found him spending more time than ever working over the new material. A hip-shooting, off-the-cuff performer (often his first vocal takes end up pleasing him best), Grey was able to stretch his legs a bit while constructing the lyrics and vocal lines to Ol’ Glory. “I would visit it much more often in my mind, visit it more often on the guitar in my house,” Grey says. “I like an album to have a balance, like a novel or like a film. A triumph, a dark brooding moment, or a moment of peace—that's the only thing I consistently try to achieve with a record.”
Grey has been living this balance throughout his career, and Ol’ Glory is a beautifully paced little film. On “The Island,” Grey sounds like Coleridge on a happy day: “All beneath the canopy / of ageless oaks whose secrets keep / Forever in her beauty / This island is my home.” “A Night to Remember” finds the singer in first-rate swagger: “I flipped up my collar ah man / I went ahead and put on my best James Dean / and you'd a thought I was Clark Gable squinting through that smoke.” And “Turn Loose” has Grey in fast-rhyme mode in keeping with the song's title: “You work a stride / curbside thumbing a ride / on Lane Avenue / While your kids be on their knees / praying Jesus please.” From the profane to the sacred, the sly to the sublime, Grey feels out his range as a songwriter with ever-greater assurance.
The mood and drive of Ol’ Glory are testament to this achievement. The album ranks with Grey’s very best work; among other things, the secret spirituality of his music is perhaps more accessible here than ever before. On “Everything Is a Song,” he sings of “the joy with no opposite,” a sacred state that Grey describes to me: “It can happen to anybody: you sit still and you feel things tingling around you, everything's alive around you, and in that a smile comes on your face involuntarily, and in that I felt no opposite. It has no part of the play of good and bad or of comedy or tragedy. I know it’s just a play on words but it feels like more than just being happy because you got what you wanted — this is a joy. A joy that doesn’t get involved one way or the next; it just is.”
Grey's most treasured albums include Otis Redding's In Person at the Whisky a Go Go and Jerry Reed's greatest hits, and the singer once told me that he grew up “wanting to be Jerry Reed but with less of a country, more of a soul thing.” With Ol’ Glory, Grey does his idols proud. It's a country record where the stories are all part of one great mystery; it's a blues record with one foot in the church; it's a Memphis soul record that takes place in the country.
In short, Ol’ Glory is that most singular thing, a record by JJ Grey—the north Florida sage and soulbent swamp rocker.
Dragondeer will release their debut full length LP If You Got The Blues on March 10th 2018 at the Bluebird Theater in Denver, Colorado. The band recorded the record with producer Mark Howard (Bob Dylan, Willie Nelson, Neil Young, Lucinda Williams, Tom Waits) in California's storied Topanga Canyon. The record will be out digitally worldwide on March 2nd via VQ Creative / Kobalt.
"Dragondeer hit the stage with their thick blues rock sound. Reminiscent of early Led Zeppelin, The Black Keys, and electric Taj Mahal, the quartet stunned the audience with their hybrid of Mississippi Delta blues and 1960s psychedelic rock. Lead vocalist, guitarist and harmonica player Eric Halborg led the band with a rare ferocity, his deep growl and swampy harmonica blending perfectly with Cole Rudy’s raw pedal steel playing. Shocking many in attendance and quickly catapulting onto the Denver scene, Dragondeer is a growing force to be reckoned with." - Live For Live Music
DRAGONDEER | IF YOU GOT THE BLUES
When asked about the inspiration for their new album, recorded in the hills of Topanga Canyon, the members of Denver-based Dragondeer, all describe a similarly surreal scene. Each mined solace from the bucolic, unfamiliar surroundings, which, according to bassist Casey Sidwell was, “somehow soothing and creepy all at once.” From the opening soul-dirge title track of If You Got the Blues, the debut full length album from Dragondeer, the effect of the atmosphere is prominent.
This spacious, blues epic comes out of the gate with a whisper that has as much place on the Sandlot soundtrack as it does in an LA afterhours bar. “It's a love song,” says frontman Eric Halborg of the title track, “a song that I felt gut punched in such a good way each time we played it back during the sessions.” It has all the familiarity of a love song but is delivered with an earnestness and honesty that makes it, by virtue, singular.
Blasting into the aptly titled “Amarillo Bump,” which starts like CCR’s “Run Through the Jungle”, the album begins to flex the diversity that it displays throughout its course. The integrity of the musicians, with a total lack of cynicism, makes the music heart wrenching and entirely believable.
The confident restraint of the rhythm section, featuring Sidwell and Carl Sorensen (drums), slinks through the album with the virtuosity of old hands and remains committed to authentically interpreting the music that this album draws its inspiration from. String savant, Cole Rudy, provides the texture this record hangs its sonic hat on. Switching gears between sinister, ethereal, funky, and down home, evident in his work on songs like “Won’t Back Down” and “Same Train”. Out front, the chronically smooth voice of Eric Halborg ties the album together with occasional help from his blistering blues harp. The anthemic “Broadway Avenue” showcases his penchant for melding a beach attitude with the griminess of the blues. Listened to as a whole, the album plays like a blend of stoner ethos, Dr. Hook-esque country-funk, and psychonaut blues.
So it stands to reason that the band would find the far-flung isolation of west LA County an appropriate muse. “I slept and woke up outdoors every morning to perfect weather overlooking the canyon,” recalls Rudy. “I would take runs above the house through the low clouds on the trails and it seemed like I was on another planet.”
Perhaps the biggest influence on the album, however, was esteemed producer, Mark Howard, whose resume reads like a record nerd’s inventory list. Bob Dylan, Tom Waits, REM, Neil Young, Lucinda Williams are just a few among a bevy of legendary recording artists he has called clients. Halborg notes, succinctly, “Mark Howard is a master who has worked with masters.” His mastery is on obvious display across “If You’ve Got the Blues,” with a deft use of space, and a supreme talent for finding the performance.
American music, with the blues in particular, has been interpreted, replicated, and regurgitated in almost every conceivable fashion, which makes it all the more compelling when a new unique incarnation comes along. Culled from the vestiges of some of the most important bands Colorado has ever produced, Dragondeer has conjured a singular and neoteric sound that both nods to the past and eschews fears of modern influence. They draw from all corners of the American sound including the vicious edges of Elmore James, the hypnotic repetition of Junior Kimbrough, the wailing harmonica of Sonny Boy Williamson, and the smooth psychedelia of Taj Mahal. Paired with pieces of Sly Stone, Captain Beefheart, the longform leanings of the hippie revolution a la The Grateful Dead, and the agony of American soul music, these influences have helped Dragondeer carve a niche at a crossroads of music that has remained largely unexplored.
“If You’ve Got the Blues” is a testament to Dragondeer’s songwriting, musicianship, and purity. It’s also a personal manifesto for the band, whose belief in a shared human experience and desire to connect with everyone, gives the record an empathetic slant that’s almost entirely un-echoed in this self-serving, narcissistic modern landscape. “It's about sticking by your loved ones and being there for 'em when they need it; rising up your tribe,” says Halborg. “We try to do that for each other and those around us so it felt right to name the record in honor of that notion.” Every bit as compelling as it is contemplative, and frenetic as it is mollifying, this is a band, and an album, that explores the American experience with eyes to both ends of the spectrum of the human heart.
Dragondeer has shared the stage with Nathaniel Rateliff & The Night Sweats, Shakey Graves, Drive By Truckers, Futurebirds, The Entrance Band, The Bright Light Social Hour, Hot Buttered Rum, Murder City Devils, Anders Osborne, Jerry Joseph, Sonny Landreth, J Roddy Walston, Linda Perhacs, Jarekus Singleton, Leon Russell, Steel Pulse, and Wovenhand +
The band has performed all over the United States and abroad with performance slots at festivals including: Telluride Blues & Brews Festival, Nacarubi Music Festival in Big Sur, California, Tour De Fat, South Park Music Festival, SXSW 2014-2015, The Denver Post Underground Music Showcase (The UMS), Jazz Aspen Snowmass Festival, T-Bois Blues Festival in Louisiana, Arise Music Festival, The 24th Annual Grolsch Blues Festival in Schöppingen, Germany, and an appearance at the legendary Red Rocks Amphitheater.
"Dragondeer is great for day drinking and fishing next to the swamp while gators sunbathe near you and your ex-boyfriend is blowing up your phone with angry texts you’re ignoring in between pulls of whiskey. It’s music for wandering down South Broadway in the summer, sticky with sweat, searching for the nearest party. Really, though, it’s bluesy and forceful, and you’ll wonder why you don’t have Dragondeer in heavy rotation after hearing Eric Halborg’s vocal chops."
"Nestled somewhere between the quicksilver psychedelia of the '60s and bone-thumpin' blues from Mississippi's yesteryear, these Colorado cats have crafted a sound that is equal parts cosmic and grooving"
- Break Thru Radio