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Over the last five years, under the tutelage of JJ Grey, Mofro has evolved from a compact little swamp-funk blues band into a full-fledged r&b unit legitimately paying homage to the legacy of its native South. This River continues the evolution in that direction, redolent with all the confidence and authority of its predecessors.
The authenticity of "Somebody Else," for instance, is striking as its horns, supplied by saxophonist Art Edmiston and trumpeter Dennis Marion, alternately punch and sway over the ever-so-slight stop and start of the rhythm section of bassist Todd Smallie(long-time staple of The Derek Trucks Band) and drummer Anthony Cole. And the self- awareness implicit in its lyrics is evidence Grey's intelligence isn't lacking on his new material: "99 Shades of Crazy" is similarly reflective, though in a more upbeat manner, where the singing, in conjunction with the sleek horn lines, communicates a healthy sense of self-deprecating humor.
In its syncopated clavinet from Anthony Farrell, alongside Grey's harmonica, in conjunction with the slightly tongue-in-cheek lyrics, the opening cut, "Your Lady She's Shady" may sounds a bit slight next to the likes of the more urban sheen of "Tame A Wild One." There Grey's vocal, especially as it carries on while the band drops out, is the sound of grounded, forthright emotion. The acoustic strains of "The Ballad of Larry Webb" bond its folk and country-blues roots to the authentic soul music surrounding it, even as it reaches its stately conclusion.
JJ Grey has always managed to avoid provincialism by balancing Dixie-sourced musical motifs, like those of "Florabama," with vivid images of his homeland. His relish for his native South naturally permeates such songs and, as a result, the material comes off honestly rendered rather than contrived. The integrity and cohesion of Mofro as a band makes that track work as well as the more straightforward rock and roll of "Standing on the Edge," the sole cut on The River to so prominently feature the electric instrument of guitarist Andrew Trube: alongside a classic horn arrangement, he asserts himself in his role as soloist without overstepping his membership in the ensemble.
"Write A Letter" continues in that vein as the ten cuts move into the album's home stretch via the largely instrumental workout aptly title "Harp & Drums." Produced and engineered, as all Mofro albums have been, with engineer Dan Prothero, this collaboration certainly helped insure this track did not end up simply as a throwaway, but rather a chance for JJ Grey and Mofro, as a tightly-knit band, to strut their proverbial-not to mention plentiful-stuff.
And its feverish atmosphere is an ideal setup for an introspective finish in the form of the title song which moves from its whispery early sections to an exhortative end. Like the album for which it provides a title, "This River" is (proudly) much more than the sum of its parts.
Track Listing: Your Lady, She's Shady; Somebody Else; Tame A Wild One; 99 Shades Of Crazy; The
Ballad Of Larry Webb; Florabama; Standing On The Edge; Write A Letter; Harp And Drums;
Personnel: J.J. Grey: lead vocals, backing vocals, electric guitar, harmonica, tambourine,bass,acoustic 6- and 12- string guitar; Andrew Trube: electric guitar, lap steel guitar,acoustic guitar; Anthony Farrell: organ, piano, clavinet, electric guitar; Todd Smallie: bass;
Anthony Cole: drums, organ; Art Edmiston: tenor saxophone; baritone saxophone; Dennis Marion: trumpet; Stan Lynch: shaker.