More than 50 shades to this Grey

JJ Grey & Mofro, like Alejandro Escovedo (see below), was among the first crop of Castle Theatre shows back in fall 2010. The Jacksonville, Fla.-based soul man is making his first return in the eight years since at 8 p.m. Tuesday.

TODD COOPER, For The Pantagraph

On days off like this, JJ Grey is apt to be busy tending to hurricane damage at his Jacksonville-area home in Florida.

But not courtesy the recent apocalyptic visits from Irma or Maria.

Nope.

Grey is still in recovery mode from Matthew, who blew through a full year before either of those deadly tempests got the wind in their sails.

"We're re-doing a bunch of the house that was flooded," says the front man for JJ Grey & Mofro, the rip-roaring swamp-funk-soul septet headlining a Castle Theatre show Tuesday night.

"We've been out of the house since two Octobers ago."

Coulda been worse, he adds, noting that if Irma had swung this way, a la Matthew, "the water levels would have almost engulfed the whole house."

As it was, only part of it was submerged.

But that's life in the Gulf states, something a native like Grey, born and raised and rooted in Jacksonville, knows too well.

So much so, in fact, that he devoted an entire song, "The Hurricane," to that very force of nature on his current album "Ol' Glory," which came out in 2015 ... pre-Matthew.

Grey is claiming no powers of foresight, however ... just a familiarity with reality.

"Ain't no building tall enough, ain't no shelter safe enough, when God, when he opens his mouth ...

"Ain't no levy strong enough, ain't no science that’s smart enough, when God, when he opens his mouth."

That resilience, tempered with a practical resignation to the forces of God and nature, is something that comes through, like gangbusters, in a typical JJ Grey & Mofro performance ... be it live or otherwise.

Live, a la Tuesday's Castle show, is the way to go, though.

It's the group's first stand there since helping break in the venue during its first month of operation back in the fall of 2010 (a la Austin rocker Alejandro Escovedo, who preceded Grey by two nights eight years ago and, by coincidence, is doing the same again in 2018; see story below).

In the eight years since, Grey suspects we'll see a changed man, and band, both a little older and maybe a tad wiser.

"I've evolved, and certain things have changed, even if I couldn't tell you what, specifically. I do think I've gotten better at doing what I do ... I'm more focused. I know my voice sounds as good as it ever has. "

One change for the better has been the boys in the band, save one member, all migrating to Grey's Jacksonville turf.

"That helps .. a lot, making it easier together, especially when we need to rehearse. We never had that option before."  

JJ Grey, born John Higginbotham, discovered his Mofro back in the middle 1990s, when he and musical partner Daryl Hance joined forces as Mofro Magic.

As Grey tells it, the term Mofro began its life as his nickname, then graduated to band name, since it seemed to evoke the kind of musical sounds being made, and, besides, "it sounded southern."

Mofro's breakthrough was the 2001 album, "Blackwater," which celebrated Grey's swamp country origins with all the soulful passion he could muster ... which was plenty.

In the 17 years since, six rawboned albums and increasing critical/popular acclaim have followed. 

Grey's Central Illinois debut 10 years ago was in the company of the gods, so to speak: sharing the bill with soul legends Mavis Staples and Booker T. (of the MGs) at the U of I Krannert Center in Urbana.

"Man, that was a great one!," he recalls. "I got a call from my agent saying, 'They want you to come and do 30 minutes with Booker T and Mavis ... are you interested?'"

Was he interested??

"Well, yeah, OF COURSE I was interested!," he says of two of his musical heroes.

"And both of them were 100 percent down to earth and talked to me about everything ... food, family, all that stuff. And Miss Mavis gave me her phone number and told me the next time I was in Chicago to give her call and come see her."

Then there was the time he was on a summer tour sharing the stage with B.B. King. 

Grey remembers being invited to join the blues legend on his bus.

The younger man was escorted in, and was greeted by the spectacle of King watching an old black-and-white "Gunsmoke" rerun on TV ... one of the early ones featuring a young Burt Reynolds as a semi-regular having it out with hulking James Arness' Marshal Matt Dillon.

Grey's introduction to the King?

"The first thing out of his mouth was 'like Burt Reynolds could whup Marshal Dillon's (bleep).!'"

About all Grey could do was agree, and join in on the viewing, hopefully agreeing with the King's assessment. 

He was now a fully vested member of the court.

In fact, all of the greats that Grey has met and performed with over the past 17 years, from George Thorogood to Bill Withers to Gregg Allman, have been positive and rewarding experiences.

He knows this may sound corny or show biz-schmoozy, but it's true: "They've all been great people to me ... nobody's been a jerk."

He pauses, and adds: "Yeah ... so far, so good."

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