Photographs by Jensen Hande.
IT'S A HALF HOUR BEFORE MIDNIGHT, and John “JJ” Grey and his band, Mofro, are barreling through a lengthy set at Freebird Live in Jacksonville Beach, Fla. The shoulder-to-shoulder crowd is sweaty and moving together within the humid confines of the concert venue. The place is packed to near capacity, and Grey is in control, leading his ensemble through their Southern-fried funk ritual. The rhythm section is locked, the horns are bright and powerful, and Grey’s gritty voice and chunky guitar carry the melodies to the swaying mass before him. The hometown concert offers a chance for native Jacksonvillian Grey to reconnect with the people who first started digging his music more than a decade ago. And dig it they do. Grey saunters to the edge of the stage as the band pumps out the fouron- the-floor groove to “Air,” one of Mofro’s most recognizable tunes. He lazily tips his microphone toward the audience, and they respond loud and in unison: “We been walkin’ on air y’all, been walkin’ on air.”
As the witching hour closes in, the band slips into the title track of their 2004 release, Lochloosa. Like many of Grey’s songs, the hard-driving bluesy ballad mourns Florida’s disappearing natural landscape, taking to task developers who rip up the soil to build strip malls, gated subdivisions and theme parks. It’s subject matter to which hometown Mofro fans instantly relate, subject matter that runs steadily though all of Grey’s albums, including his newest release, Georgia Warhorse.
Grey is deeply connected to the swamps, marshes and forests of northern Florida. He was raised with the nickname Buckshot on his family’s 20- acre farm in Whitehouse, Fla., a rural community just west of Jacksonville proper. He spent his childhood hunting with his grandfather and running wild with his friends in the woods that surround his family’s land. He learned about music in the local juke joints and on his neighbors’ front porches.