From the opening notes of “Country Ghetto” through the end of their set over two hours later, JJ Grey & Mofro had what seemed like a welcome home party at Portland, Oregon’s Crystal Ballroom on Thursday, November 11th, although they were thousands of miles away from Grey’s north Florida residence. The crowd fell into the band’s deep, swampy soul groove and gave their full support to the men on stage throughout the night. Grey was as happy to be there as anyone in the enraptured crowd, and mentioned that one of his favorite albums was recorded in the very room he was playing, referring to R.L. Burnside’s Burnside on Burnside, a live album recorded in January of 2001. The night was filled with some of Grey’s most popular songs, as evidenced by the sheer volume of the crowd’s vocal accompaniment.
20 years since the release of his first album, 2001’s Blackwater, JJ Grey and his band are firing on all cylinders, showing a stage presence and maturity that’s been earned by countless miles on the road. The band played several title tracks from albums they’ve released over the past two decades, including “Lochloosa” (2004), “Orange Blossoms” (2008), “Brighter Days” (2011), and “This River” (2013). They also proved their talent by offering up some cover songs that may be considered too sacred for bands more faint of heart. The slow burn of “Hey Joe” was pulled off beautifully as was the super soulful “House of The Rising Sun.”
With the set nearing its end, Grey mentioned the recent loss of a friend, referring to the sudden passing of his manager and co-founder of Madison House, Jesse Aratow. Thinking maybe part of the tour might be cancelled, Grey proclaimed that he’s glad the shows went on, and he walked off the stage. Coming back on for the encore, the band kicked in to an apropos sing-along, “Brighter Days.” It came across as a true testament to the healing power of live music. And as evidence that this man and his band belong onstage bringing their soulful art to the people, it was Grey himself that then began the chant of “One more song! One more song,” before offering up the night’s closer.
Before JJ Grey and Mofro took the stage, the Portland audience was treated to an opening set by up-and-coming hometown heroes TK & The Holy Know-Nothings. Anchored by frontman Taylor Kingman’s masterful songwriting and sometimes humorous, sometimes devastating, always poignant lyrics, the Know-Nothings are known for their raucous live performances. Pulling from an always-expanding catalog of dirt-under-the-nails folk rockers, and after the release of their second album, The Incredible Heat Machine, this group of true hard-working, groove-laden musicians is likely to see the expansion of their touring radius as well as venue capacities.