When it comes to JJ Grey, it’s never a question of whether he will come back to Wilmington’s Greenfield Lake Amphitheater, but when. When is now, and his show this Thursday, July 9, with opener Dylan LeBlanc, is one of his last in the U.S. this summer before he begins his next European tour in a couple weeks.
Grey’s energy and ability to connect with his audience is no secret for folks who enjoy his music and have seen him live. Since their last visit, JJ Grey & Mofro released their latest studio album, “Ol’ Glory,” earlier in the year. While he had a lot of fun churning out the record, Grey says he’s having a blast touring with it now. With the same Southern brand of storytelling and blend of swampy blues, rock, funk and gospel, Grey explains that songs like “Light a Candle” and the title track, “Ol’ Glory,” really grow into their depth while on the road.
“So many of them come into their own thing when we play them live,” he says. “It’s been fun doing it and an easy transition finding the place where the songs do their thing live, which is so different than the studio sometimes.”
With seven studio albums and nine total records to date, Grey’s already working on the next project. In fact, he never really stops thinking about new music.
“I can just be sitting around, start humming, tapping my foot and then grab a recorder out of my pocket and start recording it,” he divulges. “Then move on to a keyboard or something to try and play it, and just keep messing a around until something happens.”
While there are ideas that have been living in Grey’s head for years, others creep up randomly. How far those partial melodies and tidbit beats—which have all filled his pocket-recorder to capacity—go really depends.
“I’ll just start weeding through it to see if something strikes my fancy,” Grey continues. “Hopefully, in the next six months or so, I’ll be able to fish out what would constitute a record worth listening to.”
Grey admits “six months” could equal anywhere from a week to a year before anything new comes to fruition. Right now, he’s focused on the stories he’s telling on tour. Grey has expressed often the stage in Wilmington lends itself to his brand of singing—especially with a venue that brings his Jacksonville, Florida, upbringing to the forefront of music. His ongoing appreciation and adoration for Greenfield Lake, with all of the familiar pines and cypress trees, make it feel like home. Grey’s connection to the Wilmington audience becomes stronger thanks to his Southern stories painted in his lyrics. He muses over the impact that relation to place, culture and language may have on an audience’s interpretation, as he prepares to tour abroad.
“I don’t think it’s harder to make that connection over there, but I do think that it’s easier to make that connection here,” he says. “The thing is when I play a place like [Greenfield Lake] it’s in the heart of what a bunch of the songs I sing are.”
Just like Otis Redding’s telling of life bound to love that is “taller than the tallest pine, sweeter than a grape on a vine” (“Chained and Bound”), Grey says there are people who know exactly what comparisons and imagery Otis wrote about—they can picture those pines, they picture that vine with the grapes, because they’ve lived it (to an extent) with him. Yet, as the saying goes: “Music is universal.”
“Though [other people from other regions] may have a different picture of a pine tree or a different vision of a grape, they still got it,” Grey continues. “People are still people, and they all have an idea of home, and [audiences] can connect the songs to their home.”
Grey sees his music evoke imagery and emotion as intended, no matter the cultural or language barriers. This sentiment is captured in “Everything is a Song” (“Ol’ Glory”): “Now I’m rolling in her arms/she’s singing to me. Every blade of grass/from every tree. My world it came alive/with the color of spring/It’s got me singing along/‘Cause everything is a song/everything’s a song.”
Grey jokes he sometimes does “tone it back”—at least for those unfamiliar with the deep-South drawl. “At least so they can understand what I’m saying,” he quips. “Sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn’t.”
No matter where the road takes him, Grey’s propensity for storytelling with vigor only magnifies with the instrumentals of his band: Anthony Cole (drums), Andrew Trube (guitar), Anthony Farrell (organ), Todd Smallie (bass), Dennis Marion (trumpet) and Jeff Dazey (saxophone).
“All the guys who play with me bring to life the whole intent of the song,” he says. “That’s a big part of the connection that happens between all of us … and it’s because of the way these guys play the songs. I think that really moves past any language or cultural barriers.”
See JJ Grey & Mofro perform at the Greenfield Lake Amphitheatre (1941 Amphitheatre Dr.) this Thursday, July 9 at 6 p.m., with singer/songwriter Dylan LeBlanc opening the show. Tickets are $25 in advance and $30 the day of show.