Mofro, one of the best American bands of the new century, has grown a bit in size, adding a three-man horn section, and (probably of necessity) gotten a bit more polished since I saw them last summer. The need to direct more musicians makes lead singer/guitarist/keyboardist JJ Grey less like a shaman and more like a gospel/soul bandleader. If anything, though, his onstage self-confidence – to use a technical term, his mojo – has strengthened.
Drummer George Sluppick, functioning as second-line band leader, has added some sting to his beat while retaining the heavy foot. Absurdly nonchalant guitarist Daryl Hance and casually funky organ/keyboard-bassist Adam Scone round out the core of the band. Mofro, especially with the horns, is a loud band. But the near-perfect acoustics of the new Highline Ballroom (in the Meatpacking District, upstairs from Western Beef) made everything clear as a bell. Every word of the lyrics could be heard and understood; every wrinkly, scratchy note from Grey's Wurlitzer came through clearly.
Highlights of the set included "Tragic," "By My Side," "Circles," and "Country Ghetto," all from the new CD, as was the slow, gospel-influenced encore, "The Sun is Shining Down." "Six Ways from Sunday" (from Lochloosa) turned into an extended jam, and "Florida" (from Blackwater) got the crowd into a frenzy which continued through a mopping-up (nameless?) jam that closed the official set.
Inspiring, as usual.
Assembly of Dust (see my CD review in this column) is the exact opposite sort of band. Where Grey directs his group from a position of charisma and total dominance, AOD's Reid Genauer leads by getting out of the way. Not blessed with an especially soulful voice or a magnetic onstage personality, Genauer has the gift of generating small sparks that his band can blow into roaring fires.
If a Mofro set feels rooted in the 60s, AOD recalls the 70s, referencing the Allman Brothers, Boz Scaggs, Steely Dan, and Bakersfield country. Lead guitarist Adam Terrell looks like a college professor but blazes during his long, astoundingly fluid solos, which owe much more to Duane Allman than to Jerry Garcia. Keyboardist and co-writer Nate Wilson plays with easy flair, while bassist John Leccese and drummer Andy Herrick lock in as well as any rhythm section I've heard.
The first few songs seemed small and overly controlled. Genauer's wispy presence requires you to "lean in" to get what the band is doing. But after a few songs things started to deepen, the excellence of the band became apparent, the dynamics kicked in, and much jamming ensued. More than I could take, actually; I missed the end of the set because of the problem with Highline Ballroom and similar venues: they're standing-room-only rooms, with just a few tables on the sides. There's a reason I'm not a butler. Three and a half hours is as much as I can take standing on my feet.
Still I came away with much appreciation of Assembly of Dust, and another memorable experience of JJ Grey and Mofro.