Wednesday, 25 March 2015

Profiles - JJ Grey, John Mayall, Tony Joe White

Published in the March / April issue of Rhythms Magazine, 2015, as part of the Baby, Don't You Want To Go? touring recommendation feature.

JJ Grey & Mofro

It was around seven years ago that northern Floridians JJ Grey & Mofro were last in Australia, a trip which was, in fact, the band’s maiden voyage down under. So it’s with no small amount of excitement that they embark for our shores to play Bluesfest this year, armed with a cracking new album, Ol’ Glory, the latest in a catalogue rich with southern soul and blues, country and rock ‘n’ roll, melded together as only Grey and Mofro can.

“I am lookin’ forward to it,” Grey smiles, “and as a matter of fact, Australia really inspired me to get off my arse and get serious about doing something with music. My wife was living in Sydney at the time, and I loved Australia, so I thought maybe I could move there and do music. That never happened, but it’s funny how that was part of it.”

Despite Grey’s affinity with this country, it’s the country, and region, of his birth that filters through in his music. Ol’ Glory is a prime example, brimming as it is with southern horns, gritty guitars, songs that sway, songs that grind, a high point in the band’s career thus far, steeped in southern American musical tradition.

I was introduced to Grey and Mofro via their third album, 2007’s Country Ghetto, and was quickly drawn in to what is a lean, driving, dirty record, quite different from the new cut, which is far more considered, intricately arranged. Obviously this evolution isn’t surprising, there have been three records in between, but as it turns out, despite the sparse and raw feel of Country Ghetto, Ol’ Glory came together a lot more naturally.

“Yeah, Country Ghetto, funnily enough, is probably the second most produced of all the records I’ve been a part of,” Grey muses. “I think Blackwater (the band’s 2001 debut) was the most produced. And that is so weird, because even when I listen to it, I think the opposite.

“With Country Ghetto, I went into the studio with just a drummer, and I played guitar on a scratch track while he laid down all his parts… and then we layered everything else, one after the other. Whereas, since probably Orange Blossoms (2008), every record has progressively gotten more and more to where it’s the whole band playing. In fact, [this album], the whole band including the horns, played together over the entire album.”

This ‘live in the studio’ approach has played quite a part in the band’s sonic evolution, the results being more fluid and free, less grit and grime, despite the differences in production. Having said that, as Grey says, there hasn’t been much change as far as location and equipment have gone.

“The funny thing is that every record from Blackwater to this record right now, has been recorded on the same gear, in the same studio, the same guitars, the same amplifiers, same tape machine, same microphones for the most part, same everything,” he says with a laugh. “I think it’s just the arrangements just get a little tighter [each time].”

Tight is the word, particularly in the live setting, and their sets at Bluesfest won’t be any different. “I don’t like to look back too much, but [our sets at Bluesfest last time], those were a couple of sets I wished we could have had back,” he sighs. “This time though, we’re gonna come in and do what we do, and that’s just share an honest moment, you know?

“And that requires you to be there man, be a part of the audience, you’re watching the audience put on a show, everyone is watching each other… and so we’ll play plenty of stuff off the new record, plenty of stuff off the old records, I’m lookin’ forward to it.”

Samuel J. Fell


John Mayall

He’s the godfather of British blues, the man responsible, in large part, for bringing this music that’s informed so much, to millions of English music fans. Via the seminal Bluesbreakers, John Mayall reinterpreted the genre, along the way displaying a knack for unearthing some of the best electric blues guitarists in the world – Eric Clapton, Peter Green, Mick Taylor, Walter Trout, Harvey Mandel and Buddy Whittington, amongst many others.

Despite the fact Mayall no longer fronts the Bluesbreakers (the name being retired in 2008), at 81 years old, he’s still in fine form, in 2013 clocking up a half century in the game. “It’s something that I appreciate, and something that should never be taken for granted,” Mayall says on his 50 years in music.

“If people respect you for a certain originality, then it’s important to not take that for granted, [you need to be] always striving for creative highs. That’s what I’ve always done, and what I always will do.”

Last year, Mayall produced his 61st release, A Special Life, an album which as he says, wasn’t that different from his 1965 debut, John Mayall Plays John Mayall, in terms of what went into making it.

“Not in essence, I don’t think there’s that much difference,” he says. “The whole idea is to get your emotions and the content of the song across in as honest a way as possible. And I think the technology available today, allows you to not have such a struggle with the equipment side of things. I think one helps the other, for sure.”

At its heart, it’s all blues, it’s what he’s done since day one, and it’s what he’ll do until the day he dies. “To me, it’s always been exciting,” he says of a genre he’s become a literal part of. “The musicians I’m working with, they keep it fresh, we have such a great time every night we step on stage. I don’t see any change to that situation.”

They say the blues will never die. “That’s exactly right,” he smiles. Fifty years in, and John Mayall is still the godfather, with no thought to giving that title, or the musical world he’s made his home, up at all.

Samuel J. Fell


Tony Joe White

While legendary swamp bluesman Tony Joe White might have aged over the years, his songwriting process remains very much the same as it has for decades. "[Songs] are kinda handed down to you from the sky, I just wait for a tune to come to me, I don't worry about trying to write it to get it on the radio or anything,” he says in his distinct Louisiana drawl.

“Usually, I sit and take a look outside, get a few cold beers, hopefully get a few words... then go into the studio and just lay it down."

This technique was utilised most recently for 2013’s Hoodoo, perhaps White’s swampiest release since he began making records in 1968. The songs are lean, hungry blues tunes, his trademark fuzz lathered all over them. “I’ve had my own studio for the last 18 years, it’s an old civic war house,” he says.

“Still use my old 16-track, tape, old microphones, and we just get in there and hit the red button. Then I might add a little guitar [later], but most of the time, like on Hoodoo, eight or nine of [those songs] are first takes.”

As White prepares to head back to Australia for Bluesfest in April, his “seventeenth or eighteenth trip to Australia” since he first started coming here in the late ‘80s, Warner are re-releasing the three records White recorded with them in the early ‘70s – Tony Joe White, The Train I’m On and Homemade Ice Cream.

“We were down in Muscle Shoals, one of those magic spots that you can’t wait to go to,” he recalls of the sessions for The Train I’m On. “We was in the studio, everyone was there, ready to go, at about three o’clock, or four in the afternoon, but there was no Roger Hawkins, the drummer.”

“So we kept waiting and waiting, man. Then all of a sudden, at about five, Roger comes walkin’ in, bare-footed, cut-off blue jeans, no shirt, and he’s got fish scales on his feet,” he goes on with a laugh. “He’d been outside cleaning fish, down by the river while we was up there waitin’, so I thought, ‘Now, if my drummer has got fish scales on his feet, then this is gonna be swampy’.”

It’d come as a surprise to many if anything Tony Joe White ever did wasn’t swampy. As he says, “I dig goin’ down to Louisiana, goin’ to my sister’s out in the bayou where you hear the gators bellow, and maybe take a tape recorder and play guitar while they holler.”

Now that’s the swamp. The real swamp. That’s Tony Joe White.

Samuel J. Fell

JJ Grey & Mofro, John Mayall and Tony Joe White all play the Byron Bay Bluesfest, April 2-6, 2015. For playing times, tickets etc, head to the website here.

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