JJ Grey seems like a guy who knows how to have a good time. He also seems like he genuinely wants everyone around him to have a good time. And, if parties have a way of evolving from the mellow pleasantries of early evening to dancing on the tables in the pre-dawn hours, Grey seems like the guy who starts with a keg stand or the suggestion that everyone goes skinny dipping — and lets things escalate from there. With his six-piece band Mofro, Grey took the outdoor stage at Pisgah Brewing Co. on Friday night, playing a tambourine with a drumstick, dancing throughout “Orange Blossoms.” (That song, by the way, says “We swam in the lake, we watched fire flies by night” — Grey changes “swam” to “skinny dipped” to cheers from the audience.)
The set moved through crowd pleasers like “Country Ghetto” to “Every Minute” from the new album Ol’ Glory. That song has a nice dynamic build, which is kind of surprising since Grey is such a powerhouse vocalist. His vocal style — part Bob Seger, part Aretha Franklin — leaves little room for subtlety. But instead of bringing down the intensity, Grey’s band includes two horn players (Dennis Marion and Marcus Parsley), both geniuses, both able to lift each song to new levels.
In fact, it was Marion’s solo that transformed a late-set rendition of “Slow, Hot & Sweaty” from a funky jam into a gorgeously rendered urban nocturne. That song (among others) was enhanced by the soulful background vocals of Anthony Ferrell, who is also a fantastic organ and keyboard player.
There’s really not a weak link in the band, from the provocative guitar textures of Andrew Trube to the tight rhythm section of drummer Terence Higgins and bassist Todd Smallie. If noodly solos can get a bit old onstage, Grey’s band knows how to maximize each moment in the spotlight while still adding to the song.
Some of the show’s highlights included “Hold On Tight” (including pole-dancing-on-trees from a few especially invested fans) and the title track from Ol’ Glory, a gospel-infused song in which Grey’s raspy vocal floated gracefully over the silky melody. Trube’s slide guitar lead-in to “Lochloosa” set up that song perfectly, too, and Grey added a twist, subbing the regional locale for “Appalachia,” to much approval.
The set ended with an ode to Southern cooking followed by a high energy encore. Sultry, folksy, funky and rooted from start to finish, JJ Grey provided the perfect sound track to a summer night.