all words: Kerri Pinchuk, all photos: Jeremy Kim
“Y’all ain’t gotta be bashful, just sing when you want to!,” JJ Grey drawls from the 9:30 Club stage. “If someone next to you tells you to be quiet because they didn’t come here to hear you sing, then they came to the wrong goddamn show.” Ever the gentleman, that JJ, but hundreds of Grey’s biggest fans packed into every corner of the club, can’t come close to matching the soul man’s energy.
The frontman of his touring band JJ Grey & Mofro, Grey’s sold out another show on a tour that hits requisite East Coast spots before shipping off to Germany in May (fact: Eastern Europeans live for Southern rock). Credit Grey’s booming, blues-soaked voice, frantic harmonica playing, and some downhome charm: an irresistible combo that makes him one of the genre’s most beloved stars.
Did I mention his voice? Critics praise Grey for his “vivid” lyrics, which follow suit in the Southern tradition of storytelling. But if we’re being 100% honest here, JJ could belt out an ode to fried chicken and mac & cheese (which, of course, he does) and still leave the crowd in a dangerously close-to-permanent state of swoon. His power-packed voice is incredibly soulful, yet smooth—and absolutely meant to sing the blues. Think James Brown meets Johnny Cash, the kind of combo that commands attention and makes you want to drink moonshine. Or something. Allman-esque guitar riffs, keys, a trumpet, and a sax (the horns with their own choreographed dance routine) serve to enhance the band’s seamless, funky sound.
Favorite thing about the show: 1) JJ repeatedly sipped from a red Solo cup, which inevitably led to 2) JJ going off on long-winded tangents about his granny’s cooking, being a father, and his own dad’s advice to him as a kid. And 3) the out-of-the-woodwork superfans with homemade Tshirts and matching printed headscarves.
Setlist: Less than a week after releasing their newest album, Grey and his six-man band seemed absolutely thrilled to step out on stage. Amid pushing out high-energy favorites (“Lochloosa,” “The Sweetest Thing,” “Country Ghetto,” “Orange Blossoms”) that had fans following JJ’s sing-along orders, the band tried out a song or two hat had yet to be played for the D.C. crowd, including a call-and-response version of “Your Lady, She’s Shady.”
Though I’ve never been to any sort of gospel performance, I’m willing to bet that it’s extremely similar to what went down in the club on Saturday night. Songs like “Brighter Days” had the entire crowd yelling, dancing, and clapping along, with JJ shimmying across the stage with a tambourine.
Weirdest moment: Coming across a crew of svelte, likely Eastern European women in the bathroom was definitely a first for me at the 9:30 Club, but the experience once again proved my long-held theory: swamp rock knows no borders.