Fans who get tickets to see J.J. Grey & Mofro on Sept. 8 at Johnny Mercer Theater are likely to see a version of the band that’s a bit less unpredictable with their show than in years past.
Where earlier outings generally found Grey mixing up the set list from show to show, the group has settled into more of a consistent selection of songs to play on tour.
“We’d have a group of songs we’d rotate in and out, but we kept a core of it (the set list) together, which we’d never done,” Grey said in a phone interview. “And something happened with the show that in the set, it just took it to a whole new level. I really liked that. So now, I want to put together three or four different set ideas, to get them hammered in, instead of just like kind of willy nilly putting (set lists) together every night, although that can be fun, too…but just get them honed down to where, it’s just like anything, if you get a song to where nobody’s thinking about what they’re doing, they’re just playing, we all know it goes somewhere awesome. Well, if you get a whole show going like that, it gets really crazy.”
The live show isn’t the only thing that has Grey feeling upbeat these days. His career has also been on a notably positive track, as years of steady touring have built a following that now allows him to play theaters and the largest of clubs on a regular basis.
“To just continue to go do it is part of it, the tenacity of it,” Grey said. “And playing with great people, obviously, but that’s been going on since day one.”
Another big factor in his growing success, Grey said, is a change in attitude from when he first came on the scene in 2001. Back then, as he released his first two albums (2001’s “Blackwater” and 2004’s “Lochloosa”), he was prone to frustration when things didn’t go his way.
Over the years, as he has continued to put out a steady stream of albums – the Jacksonville, Florida-based singer/guitarist released five well-received albums in six years while signed to Alligator Records from 2007 through 2013 – his outlook has brightened.
“I just learned how to be grateful for what I have—that changed everything —and enjoy it instead of trying to find something wrong with everything,” Grey said. “I think that changed everything.”
Grey said he can’t point to any specific moment that changed his outlook.
“A million different little things happened, and I couldn’t tell you exactly which of those it was. I may have had a couple of epiphany type moments. I can’t pinpoint one exactly,” he said. “But it was just like suddenly this deep appreciation for just being here, it just kind of happened and it needed to happen because I was making myself sick all the time by not appreciating what I had and having appreciation for all the wonderful opportunities I had. Irregardless about music, music’s great, too, but I’m just talking about everything. Instead of constantly finding flaws and faults with everything, whatever it is, to ignore that 90 percent of the time that things are going right for everybody, and then to only focus on the 5 percent of the times when s*** goes wrong, it’s like, that’s life. You ain’t getting out of it without painful and wrong. That’s the way that it is, and enjoy it. Enjoy it when things go wrong and figure out a way to fix it and get back right.”
He does say, though, that one major life event certainly contributed to his feeling better about life – having his daughter.
“It had everything to do with it. It made me appreciate things instead of, here again, what we were just talking about,” Grey said. “I’ve got it easy, easy because I’ve got a wonderful family. There are several songs on ‘Ol’ Glory,’ I’ve had songs on several albums that were about my daughter. But it just was a huge thing. It just changed everything. That’s another thing that made me appreciate (life) and realize the greatest gift I can give her is my attention. And part of reclaiming my own intention was to reclaim it from the part of myself that wants to complain about everything and find something wrong with everything. So stage one was reclaiming that and I’m in control of my intention instead of something else. That’s a huge part.”
The brighter mood has translated to Grey’s more recent music, particularly on the excellent “Ol’ Glory.” The album continues to combine three main ingredients that have always been present in Grey’s music – rock, rough-hewn Southern country, funk and soul – but this time out the soul element is more pronounced and there is a brighter disposition to most of the material.
The soul element is especially apparent on songs like the luminous “Everything is a Song,” the rousing title track and the ballad “Light a Candle,” which sound like they could have been spun out alongside the music of Otis Redding or William Bell from the Stax Records studio in Memphis during the 1960s. Funk gets into the mix on the snappy “Brave Lil’ Fighter and the gritty rocker “Turn Loose.” Meanwhile, the swampy acoustic-based “The Island” lets Grey’s country-blues roots shine. The country and soul roots also figure strongly on “Every Minute,” a song that especially illustrates Grey’s improved disposition (“This mirrored light that sends back/everything that you send out/The grace you give, given back/Loving every minute you live”).
“Ol’ Glory” has been out for about seven years now – a long gap for an artist who previously released albums in quick succession. So it’s no surprise that he has been working on his next release.
“I’m working on a new album now,” Grey said. “I guess, if you want to call it that, (I’ve been) piecing together stuff and listening to it and thinking about it, sussing it all out,” he said.
For now, there’s also a run of shows this summer. With “Ol’ Glory” well in the rearview mirror, Grey’s set is now focused on his full catalog of songs.
“I just think of the mood of the song and what’s going on at that time in the show (dictates the set list),” he said. “But for the most part, there are songs from all the different records in the show.”
J.J. Grey & Mofro play the Johnny Mercer Theater at the Savannah Civic Center, Thursday, Sept. 8, 8:00 p.m. For more information, visit savannahcivic.com