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An ode to Florida past

Southern funk band Mofro's music laments the desecration of the Sunshine State's wild beauty.

By PHILIP BOOTH, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times
published March 28, 2002

John "JJ" Grey -- 34-year-old singer, songwriter and guitarist for Mofro -- is far too young to recall a time when his home state was underpopulated and vaguely exotic, all sawgrass and snakes and pristine beaches, with nary a condo in sight.

The Sunshine State once was a paradise doomed to being paved over, as the Jacksonville-area native describes it on Florida, a slow-grooving slab of Southern funk layered with Fender Rhodes piano and topped with Grey's twangy vocals and harmonica riffs.

"Florida, I know you're out there hidin' from me, you get harder and harder to find," he sings on the track from Blackwater, Mofro's debut disc, released last year. "Every day she keeps slippin' away/Florida please don't fade on me now."

So Mofro and fellow Florida-bred bandmate Daryl Hance don't have first-hand experience of Cracker days. That doesn't mean they can't mourn the continued desecration of the state's natural beauty.

"Maybe as people get smarter, they will set aside more land," Grey says from his home on his grandmother's property, 20 acres in rural Maxwell, about 30 miles west of Jacksonville. He regularly encounters deer, turkeys and skunks on the land and mows the fields with a tractor.

"I look at it like losing a friend and seeing nature sort of go away, sort of like a loved one dying," he says. "I don't want to sound like a fatalist, but. . . . "

Grey has had a longtime passion for environmental concerns. But the regional flavor of his music, influenced by the likes of the Allman Brothers, the Black Crowes, Lynyrd Skynyrd and the soul and funk of Stevie Wonder and James Brown, has only recently bubbled to the surface.

He and guitarist-dobro player Hance spent time in England several years ago, after signing a record contract with Acid Jazz Records. The label folded, and the two started over again in 1998, calling themselves Mofro and landing keyboardist-saxophonist Nathan Shepherd from Australia and bass player Fabrice Quentin from France.

"We placed an ad in Melody Maker and got an international band playing Florida swamp funk. Go figure," Grey says. "They (Quentin and Shepherd) grew up listening to and loving a lot of the same music we did, a lot of the old Stax soul artists and a lot of the James Brown gutbucket funk."

Their newfangled approach to those familiar elements attracted the attention of Fog City Records, the San Francisco label that helped launch Galactic, from New Orleans, and California jazz-funk keyboard player Robert Walter. Walter sat in on several tracks from Blackwater, and George Sluppick, of Robert Walter's 20th Congress, was the primary drummer for the sessions.

The Southern regionalism evident in Mofro's sound, particularly prominent on tracks like the bluesy, slide guitar-injected title track, the trancelike Nare Sugar, goofball spoken-word track Cracka Break, and the backbeat-slapping Frog Giggin', was a major drawing card for Fog City.

"The label really encouraged that," Grey says. "They wanted us to sound like a place and a time, rather than playing what you thought sounded cool, to sort of relate the music to regional culture. It became the whole sound of the record. When you leave home, it's suddenly so much easier to be exactly who you are."

* * *

PREVIEW: Mofro, Friday at 10 p.m., State Theatre, 687 Central Ave., St. Petersburg. Admission: $8. Call (727) 895-3045.

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